While massive flooding at the start of the year had a massive impact on traveller numbers in WA’s Kimberley region, tourism operators say things have since slowly been returning to normal.
The record flooding in the Central Kimberley, of course, was just the latest in a long line of ‘issues’ in recent years which have presented challenges for tourists, particularly interstate ones, visiting the area.
The Covid crisis saw hard border closures, and strict travel restrictions put in place in order to protect vulnerable indigenous communities, and then there were staff shortages that further hurt the tourism industry.
And then, of course, there have been rising interest rates, higher fuel costs, and major cost of living upticks.
Despite all of this, Kimberley regional leader of Parks and Visitor Services, Sarah Mullineux, told the ABC that overall visitor numbers to the region’s national parks in the 2022-2023 financial year had been ‘average’ for the region.
While earlier flooding had led to the closure of some of the Kimberley’s most famous parks, Ms Mullineux said people had been travelling to alternative smaller parks instead, keeping visitor numbers ‘stable’.
Bandilngan (Windjana Gorge), 140 kilometres north-east of Derby, was closed for many months due to infrastructure damage caused by floods, and only reopened to day visitors on August 21. Despite being closed across most of this year’s tourist season, numbers to Windjana Gorge increased by more than 350 visits.
The ABC reports that walking trails, infrastructure and access roads at Danggu Geikie Gorge, near Fitzroy Crossing, were also damaged, and remain closed for the remainder of the year due to risks to visitor safety.
Perhaps as a consequence of those closures, Mirima National Park and Mitchell River National Park in the East Kimberley saw an increase of more than 6500 visits in the 2022-2023 financial year.
Dimalurru (Tunnel Creek) National Park, 110 kilometres north-west of Fitzroy Crossing, had the biggest increase, of 6135 visits.
“Just because one or two sites are closed doesn’t mean that stops them, it just might mean that they go to other areas,” Ms Mullineux told the ABC. “[We’ve seen] more people venturing out to natural attractions and exploring their local environment and their national parks … that’s really been great to see.”
She said all of the parks were very beautiful and all have very different unique characteristics to enjoy.
Kimberley tour operator, Adam Bowen, told the ABC that this year’s tourist season bookings had started strong, but dropped off about a month earlier than previous years.
However, he said travellers had clearly been ‘excited’ to get back into the Kimberley’s national parks.
“The passengers still had a great time because we could still go to places like Tunnel Creek,” he said. “The rainfall we’ve had made everything look amazing.”
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