THE Easter long weekend has cemented Gippsland's place as one of Victoria's most loved destinations, with many tourism operators reporting their busiest holiday season ever.
As predicted, the doom and gloom of the pandemic was almost forgotten as visitors from across the state flocked to the region's tourism hot spots.
Wellington Shire was a favourite for travellers, with accommodation venues, cafés and restaurants from Port Albert to Dargo in high demand.
Ann Morris from Toms Cap Vineyard at Willing South said the usual hectic Easter period was even busier than normal, forcing the vineyard to knock back about 60 potential guests on Easter Sunday.
Its three accommodation cottages were also booked out well in advance, with bookings still steadily rolling in for the next few months.
It's the same for Charla Smith from Port Albert Waterfront Retreat, who said her holiday rental property wouldn't have a vacancy until after May.
As Melburnians and regional Victorians favoured waterside destinations, businesses in Loch Sport, Seaspray and Golden Beach all enjoyed a massive surge in business.
Seaspray Caravan Park operator Kim Courtney said the park was "full to the brim" over the four-day Easter break and into the school holidays, with many visitors staying on after that.
"It's been great to see everybody have a great time down here," she said.
"Everyone has been so friendly and happy - kids playing and families enjoying the beach.
"There's been a really strong holiday vibe this year that is wonderful to see," Ms Courtney said.
"The surf club was busy, the general store was constantly busy and we had three food vans in town which had constant queues."
In Maffra, which hosted the Maffra Lawn Tennis Easter Tournament, anyone looking for a last minute place to stay would have been disappointed.
A spokesperson from Maffra Lodge, which usually only caters for backpackers, said she fielded dozens of calls from visitors who couldn't get in elsewhere and were desperate for somewhere to stay.
"We couldn't take them because we were full," she said.
On Thursday, the operator of Dargo General Store said he had been run off his feet the entire long weekend and was still dealing with a constant onslaught of customers.
"I've hardly had time to catch my breath because it's been so busy - a constant flow of customers that are still coming," he said.
If there had been any negatives from the business boom, it's the difficulty in finding staff. The sudden demand for workers was so high that some venues had been unable to operate at their maximum allowed capacity.
Ann Morris said Tom Caps Vineyard would have been able to take more bookings if it had the staff required.
"It's the only negative of being so busy - you have to be able to get the staff," she said.
Operators say the surge in demand is a result of people wanting to make the most of their post-lockdown freedom, where travelling interstate comes with obvious risks.
Charla Smith at Port Albert said some of her clients were reluctant to venture away from Victoria because of the uncertainty of being able to get home if a COVID outbreak occurred.
"We are the same - when we get way we don't want to go anywhere at the moment outside of Victoria," she said.
Others say the surge in demand has been helped by an intensive marketing campaign by Destination Gippsland, which ensured Gippsland was front of mind for Victorians planning a short break in autumn.
Before Easter, a 16-page Gippsland magazine landed in more than 326,000 Melbourne homes, and another 326,000 copies were inserted directly into the Herald Sun.
The 16-page magazine was produced in partnership with Visit Victoria to reinvigorate the region after a terrible 24 months that included fires and travel restrictions.
An additional 10,000 copies were distributed across visitor information centres in Gippsland where tourism businesses were encouraged to pick up copies for guests.
Destination Gippsland's visitation data for 2020 highlights the challenges tourism and business operators faced 12 months ago and during lockdown.
From April 2020 to September 2020, total visitation in Gippsland was down by 1.85 million.