By CAITLIN CROWLEY
ROLLING into Stanthorpe on Queensland’s Granite Belt, two and a half hours south west of Brisbane, there’s change in the air and it’s not just the crisp winter chill the small town is famous for.
There’s a fresh optimism here that’s impossible to miss, from the buzzing town centre to the wineries which dot the rugged landscape.
Stanthorpe is writing a new chapter thanks to a surge in tourism the likes of which the region has never seen before, and many here believe they actually have the pandemic to thank.
Just two years ago this community was on its knees, drought weary and ravaged by bushfires – then covid lockdowns hit.
Ian Kraemer (pictured) from Robert Channon Wines says the situation was dire.
“The seven abject years of drought – worst in living memory for all our grandparents – everyone was basically ready to walk off the land,” he said.
Peter O’Reilly at the Queensland College of Wine Tourism remembers watching the near-constant stream of water trucks roll down the highway from his office window as the town’s drinking water supplies ran dry.
Then a two-day drenching in March last year did, in a matter of hours, what had started to seem impossible – Stanthorpe’s Storm King Dam was spilling and the drought was broken.
“All of a sudden, after the bushfires too, the drought broke and it’s been raining for 15 months and it’s just amazing,” Ian Kraemer said.
“The two things, the breaking of the drought and the opening up from covid – it was an amazing year last year.”
While the first year of the pandemic hit the town hard, greater travel freedoms in 2021 saw a huge influx of city tourists exploring the Granite Belt for the first time.
“When the Premier announced the ability to travel within Queensland, our beds were full every night, through the week and weekends,” Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi said.
“It got that full-on over a period of time our operators were exhausted.
“There’s been a whole heap of new visitation and that means repeat business.”
Peter O’Reilly said it’s been a remarkable time.
“The post-covid initial closure period saw a tourism boom that has really reset expectations of the industry and I think has set this industry up for years to come,” he said.
“It has introduced us to tens of thousands of people who are residents of Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, who had no idea of the quality of food and wine that this district produces.”
Cam Giddings (pictured above) owns bustling cafe and weekend brunch destination Little Larder Stanthorpe and said covid was the best thing for the town.
“People that were so capital city centric were kind of forced to be educated on things outside Brisbane and explore what was really close to them,” Giddings said.
“It was incredible for us. Everyone’s positive, everyone’s happy.
“It’s a positive vibe because we’re getting such a different market to what our town has ever experienced.
“90% of our guests on the weekends now are from Brisbane or the coast or from Sydney, which is incredible.”
It’s not just tourism businesses which are thriving either.
Tina Roache co-owns Polished Cosmetic Clinic in Stanthorpe and said she’d seen relationships between businesses and their customers strengthen through the pandemic.
“We’ve found that we’ve made some really loyal clients that now come back all the time,” Roache said.
“You had to be more creative in business, whatever you were doing. We introduced new technologies to our clinic.”
She also partnered with Cam Giddings and Little Larder on several joint ventures, including catering to wedding parties.
“Between us, we’re constantly bantering about what we can do next and what do people want and what’s missing in the market.”
The business confidence that’s grown alongside visitor numbers in the last year or so has also triggered a wave of new investment, particularly in the region’s wineries.
“The wine industry has seen fantastic investment and improvements and we’re seeing new benchmarks being set,” Peter O’Reilly said.
“We’ve seen a number of other new people come in and grab old vineyards and really put some investment into them.
“Right at this moment, there would be three or four brand new vineyards that would be in the pipeline”.
Martin Cooper owns Ridgemill Estate and is among those who’s invested in more accommodation in recent months.
“We’ve put in another four cabins that opened in December last year and right now if you want a weekend in cabins, it’s September,” he said.
“There’s a number of projects that have received development approval from Council, some of the wineries are changing hands. That’s new money coming in.”
Some of those tourists who discovered the region through the pandemic are also returning and buying property, securing their piece of this picturesque region.
“Especially the DINKS – Double Income No Kids,” Cam Giddings said.
Peter O’Reilly said in the past, new investment in the local wine industry tended to come from people in their 50s and 60s, looking to wind down.
“What we’ve seen in recent times is some younger people coming in and that’s exciting,” O’Reilly said.
“People in their 30s, young families coming and saying, ‘Actually this is a great place to live, this is a great lifestyle, this is a great investment in our future.'”
“It means you can see a future for the place which is quite vibrant, not just a retirement village.”
While there’s no guarantee we’ll see snow in Stanthorpe this winter, another tourism triumph is guaranteed.
“Visitation to the region is sky-high,” Martin Cooper said.
“Accommodation is very difficult to get on weekends right through to September, midweek accommodation is filling.”
That’s something Brisbane tourists Caitlyn Chambers and Alex Madigan can vouch for, having to stay at three different places over four nights.
“We struggled to find accommodation and we’re jumping back and forth between accommodation this week, so it’s busy!” Caitlyn said.
“We’re keen to get away from the city and have a nice kind of quiet weekend away, so it’s been nice to have a break.”
When it comes to Stanthorpe’s future, Cam Giddings said, “it’s our turn.”
“It’s a really special thing to be able to look back and reflect and go, this is what we’ve achieved throughout quite possibly the hardest period of trade we’ll ever have to go through.
“What’s to come will only get better”.