By Peter Douglas
Volunteers at the Upper Ferntree Gully Visitor Information Centre say they’re hurt and confused over the decision to close.
Yarra Ranges Tourism last week announced it would close the Upper Ferntree Gully and Healesville centres in June, following a detailed review of the ongoing viability of the centres.
Chief Executive Officer, Simon O’Callaghan, said the decision was based on data that showed significant decline in the number of visitor inquiries.
The Yarra Ranges Tourism board believes this is due to the increasing popularity of websites such as Airbnb.com.au and Booking.com.
But Upper Ferntree Gully volunteer Paula Vanderwerf says the decision shouldn’t be based on numbers, because their contribution to local business and tourism operators remains significant.
“Many who come here have trawled through the internet and can’t find what they want,” she said.
“We’re here, in person, to tell them about the best spots to visit.
“We tell them all the secret spots and the rich history behind them.
“This region is more than just the 1000 Steps.”
Ms Vanderwerf said many businesses and operators would suffer from the decision.
She said it was important to give tourists an unforgettable experience, because they would stay longer and want to return in future.
The volunteer of 17 years said the news came without consultation, and was a huge shock.
“We’re very passionate about helping the public, about informing the public before they head up to the hills,” she said.
“We provide enormous value to the region; it’s not all about data and dollars.
“It’s just heart-breaking they’ve made this decision without consultation.”
Meanwhile, Mr O’Callaghan told the ‘Mail’ he sympathised with the volunteers, but remained adamant the right decision was made.
“Yarra Ranges Tourism understands that some of our volunteers have been upset by our new direction,” he said.
“They have offered a fantastic, personalised service to visitors for many years, that has unfortunately seen a dramatic decline over recent times.
“Our position to transition this service into new strategies to reach the visitor has been through a very long process of review.
“We carefully considered the feedback raised ongoing by the volunteer group through a variety of forums about the challenges the centre was facing.
“With the proliferation of visitors sourcing information online, as a not-for-profit, Yarra Ranges Tourism has to respond to this change to the best of our ability and limited resources, to best support regional tourism.”