NSW travel: 'People are getting iso fever – they’re itching to get out and we’re itching to have them'

Alyx Gorman

New South Wales residents hoping to book a last-minute escape after months of lockdown living might need to act quickly. Re-bookers whose stays were thwarted by Covid-19 and eager would-be holiday makers are already planning in earnest.

Bookings at NRMA’s holiday parks across the state have gone up by 650% over the last two weeks. “That’s coming off a low base,” says Peter Khoury, the organisation’s head of media. But when you take a longer view: “It’s actually a three-fold increase on this time last year … Australians are desperate for a break.”

The online travel agent Wotif reports a 30% increase in search interest for NSW travel on Wednesday, just after the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced the state would reopen for regional travel from 1 June. The site has also seen week-on-week search interest in NSW travel increase by close to 70%.

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Camplify – a website that allows people to rent camper vans directly from owners, in a model similar to Airbnb’s – says it had a 160% increase in bookings on 20 May; and forward bookings in NSW have increased 1,360% since this time last month.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is anticipating significant interest in camping and is conducting risk assessments to determine which of its campsites can open safely. It’s also working to offer online booking for more campgrounds and says: “We expect to be opening the booking system in the next few days … .All campers will be required to book online or via the NPWS contact centre on 1300 072 757 prior to arrival for the foreseeable future in order to manage campground numbers.”

Demand for the period is particularly high for regional areas. The hottest destinations on Wotif are the wine region of Mudgee and south coast town Kiama, which both saw week-on-week increases in search interest of about 130%. For other popular weekend getaways from Sydney, including Batemans Bay, the Blue Mountains, the Hunter Valley and Port Macquarie, that figure is more than 100%.

On a typical June long weekend, Wotif says places “are booked out weeks in advance”. But this year, as operators reopen, it hopes “to see good availability and more options”.

Cameron D’Arcy, the co-owner of Sierra Escape, an eco-retreat in the Mudgee region, tells Guardian Australia he has been overwhelmed with bookings and inquiries since Berejiklian’s announcement. “It’s been pretty crazy this morning,” he says. “Both in new bookings and the process of rescheduling all bookings in April and May.”

The demand began before Berejiklian’s announcement. “We always knew an isolated luxury escape in the middle of the country [would be appealing]. Even when people were not allowed to travel we were getting inquiries.” D’Arcy has had to reject many customers who wanted to visit the property despite the travel ban.

Wednesday morning’s inquiries reached a new high: “We’ve never experienced quite this much demand … The workload is 10 times what it usually is.”

Travellers who have their heart set on a particular hotel might be best served by calling for a reservation, as many operators with plans to open, including some contacted by Guardian Australia, have not yet updated their availability online. Wotif warns that it “strongly recommend booking options with built-in flexibility like ‘free cancellation’”.

At the higher end of the market, travellers’ hopes of catching a bargain due to decreased demand may not play out immediately.

D’Arcy says many of his new customers have been hoping to book honeymoons and babymoons – “it’s people who were going overseas” and are now seeking a bucket-list style travel experience “in their own backyard”.

The extra workload is not tempering his excitement about reopening. “It’s great for the region, given we’ve been through bushfires, drought and now this ... we’ve had rain, it’s looking amazing. The fact we can get people out here is really good.”

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A 90-minute hour drive east of Sierra Escape, Sonny Vrebac, the founder and chief executive of Bubbletent Australia, has been doing it tough.

In the Capertee Valley, just west of the Blue Mountains his unique accommodation – a series of translucent, spherical, perspex tents – has “gone through a trifecta”. First the drought created dust storms and difficulties with water supply; “then we were impacted by the fires, we lost structures and facilities”; when the drought broke, “the rains dragged the top soils down”. Finally: “We had four magnificent days of weather– and then Covid-19 hit.”

But the shutdown period has not been all bad. “We began just taking advantage of that time to get maintenance done and improve infrastructure ... We were given the confidence to do so through grants and jobkeeper. That was the crunch that allowed us to think about our future in a hopeful way.” Now, he intends to reopen on 1 June.

Wednesday morning was “absolutely manic”, he says: “People are getting iso fever – they’re itching to get out and we’re itching to have them.”

Right now Bubbletent Australia is concentrating on rebooking guests whose travel has been impacted by coronavirus. It intends to reopen for bookings by the general public on Sunday. “Our dream-case scenario is that it’s going to be an influx, but we’re remaining realistic,” Vrebac says. “There’s still a lot of unease about the economy and job prospects.”

But he does not intend to discount the property, saying while it is more expensive than a motel: “We’re not $2,000 a night,” he says – a reference to the One&Only Resort a short drive away in Wolgan Valley, which is one of the state’s most expensive hotels.

“Maybe they know something that we don’t,” Vrebac says with a laugh, when we inform him that, on Wednesday morning One&Only’s rates for a weeknight stay on some booking websites were listed as closer to $3,000. “We have been busy with inquiries at Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley for months and yes, there has been a spike in bookings since the announcement,” confirms the property’s general manager, Tim Stanhope.

While the easing of lockdowns is an exciting prospect for travellers and the businesses that cater to them, the NSW minister tor tourism, Stuart Ayres, warns: “Travel will not look like it used to and visitors and businesses should follow health advice regarding physical distancing and good hygiene practices.”