WELLINGTON Shire tourism bodies and operators are hoping to spread the message that this part of Gippsland is "open as usual", as the state government reveals it is working on a package to support businesses affected by the fire crisis.
The financial impact of the fires that have decimated parts of Victoria and New South Wales is being felt closer to home, as hundreds of holiday makers avoid the region and tourism operators and businesses throughout Wellington Shire report significant losses.
Businesses and tourism groups are pleading with holidaymakers to "come back" to the shire's tourism hotspots to support small towns and spend money in businesses that rely heavily on holiday trade.
Kim Courtney from Seaspray Caravan Park said some tourists were avoiding the area because they were getting the message that Gippsland was not safe.
"Particularly international tourists, who get off the plane and are told not to go to Gippsland because of the fires," she said.
"We need to have a cohesive plan to get the message out that we are not on fire and we are open for business."
Loch Sport Business and Tourism Association president, Matt Edey, said businesses also needed support, with his supermarket businesses down about 20 per cent on normal holiday takings.
"The holiday period started well prior to the New Year, but then everybody vacated because people got frightened of the fires [in east Gippsland], and were worried about what might happen," he said.
"It's had a huge impact on everyone here, but at the end of the day we need to get the message out that there is no threat here and we are open as usual."
Mr Edey said businesses were hoping that Australia Day and Easter would bring people back to the shire and make up for the losses.
He said the recent decision to reschedule the New Year's Eve fireworks display for Easter, when the weather was expected to be more favourable, was a "sensible move".
"We hope it will be huge."
Renee Potts of CShell Real Estate in Loch Sport said accommodation businesses had been hit hard by the fires, with the coastal town "very quiet" during the New Year break.
"It's been devastating, and this will be felt all through the year," she said.
Ms Potts' agency manages 12 accommodation properties, all of which had their January bookings cancelled.
"People who didn't know Loch Sport and had never been here before thought the whole of Gippsland was on fire," she said.
Ms Potts said she recently placed a large advertisement in a Melbourne paper to attract tourists, but had not received a single enquiry.
"Usually when I advertise in Melbourne, we are inundated with calls."
LakeView Bar and Bistro owner, Peter Arsenijevic, said his pub had two weeks of good trade before the New Year, then "a mass exodus".
He had lost "a lot" of stock because of the drop in patronage, and hoped there would be some government support to reinvigorate other businesses in Gippsland.
"We need to bring people back to Loch Sport - get on television and let people know," he said.
"Yes, there's been a bit of smoke, but there's been smoke in Argentina."
Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien said he had been approached by business owners losing trade because the fire threat in east Gippsland.
He said it was incumbent on media, particularly metropolitan media and those commenting on social media, to make it clear where the fires were and that Gippsland was not one single location, but an area that stretched all the way from the outskirts of Melbourne to Mallacoota.
Mr O'Brien said Gippsland had endured its fair share of economic challenges in recent years, and didn't need any more unnecessary pain.
East Gippsland MLA Tim Bull said the state government "has a role to play in this recovery" and while the immediate focus needed to be on salvaging this summer tourist season, support needed to go on for longer.
"We need to push this area as a winter holiday destination and sell our attractions right through until next summer and beyond," he said.
Mr Bull said he had talked with Destination Gippsland about some targeted promotions "happening sooner rather than later".
"Other areas we need to look at to support businesses are cash injections for those that have been hit hard, as the reality is without direct support, they will not keep the doors open," he said.
Destination Gippsland chief executive Terry Robinson said the organisation was working hard with marketing and industry groups, as well as individual tourism business operators, with the key message being to re engage with Gippsland and visit those areas that have not been directly impacted or book now and travel later to more directly affected areas.
The state government has revealed it will work with the Commonwealth as it develops a package and ongoing support for the tourism industry.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Premier Daniel Andrews said tourism minister Martin Pakula had been having discussions with peak bodies and individual businesses "large and small".
"We'll have more to say about a tourism package soon," he told the Gippsland Times this week.