By Jamie Salter
Rising from the ashes of the destructive 2019 Bunyip bushfires that burnt 15,000 hectares of land and the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic which nearly shut down the hospitality industry is the West Gippsland Progress Association (WGPA) with a mission to improve the recovery and prosperity of the region.
The walls of Cannibal Creek Vineyard were reverberating with the sound of chatter and laughter as business owners and community leaders shared their ideas at the West Gippsland Food and Tourism Strategy launch.
Owner of the picturesque venue Kirsten Hardiker was the proud host of the event marking the beginning of a long-term vision to boost tourism in the Bunyip Ward.
“We had the fires a couple hundred metres to the north of us and at our eastern boundary, so it was a very scary time but luckily for us we were safe,“ she said.
“I love this area and I think it has so much to offer – we are Gippsland but we’re on the edge of the Yarra Valley and haven’t had a group behind us to promote the area properly.
“After the fires it really highlighted the need for a tourism strategy.“
The tourism strategy has been developed by WGPA in partnership with the Cardinia Shire Council to support the growth of small businesses and local farmers.
Feedback gathered from the community outlined the key elements of the strategy including regenerative agriculture, mentoring and marketing.
Presenting the speech to the room full of passionate listeners, WGPA secretary Erin Polson said a lot of work went into the launch of the strategy.
“We’re really proud that so many people are interested and want to participate,“ she said.
“About six years ago I wanted to move somewhere that had country life but city living so I moved to Cardinia Shire and really think this region is a beautiful area to showcase.“
WGPA’s strategy will look at investing in local events as well as upskilling business owners.
WGPA plans to work with Pakenham Racing Club to create a signature event showcasing local products and produce as well as Gumbuya World as a venue to integrate food tourism.
A food touring map has been developed featuring day trip destinations across Nar Nar Goon, Tynong, Garfield and Bunyip such as The Goon Eatery, Little Miss Hangry and Sherwood Park Orchard and Bakery Cafe.
The Garfield Hotel and former Little Miss Hangry cafe owner Brad Alden-Brown said the sky was the limit.
“The food part of the railway network is huge and we built a thriving community on the back of that but I still think we need a lot more in our area to bring people to enjoy a full day in Garfield,“ he said.
He said an underutilised train line and lack of accommodation needed to be addressed to entice people to the region.
“That’s something we can work on – there’s a lot of passion about the area and where we’re heading,“ he said.
Tyrell Publicity and Promotions has been engaged to implement a trial social media strategy in Garfield Village to bring people from wider Melbourne to the town’s eateries.
“I see so many hidden gems and so many amazing stories,“ managing director Leanne Tyrrell said.
Ms Tyrell has worked on boosting the City of Bendigo’s food tourism which is now deemed a UNESCO City of Gastronomy with gems Masons of Bendigo, Gold Mines Hotel and Alium Dining and was deemed a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2019.
Tyrrell Publicity will be offering a series of free workshops for West Gippsland businesses over the next month covering digital marketing, publicity and business growth.
Guest speaker at the launch event Richard Cornish has travelled around the world as a food writer and said home grown food and drink will be incredibly significant in the future.
“Anyone who has anything to do with making good, clean food is going to be very important,“ he said.
“If you have a story about how you make your food from the soil and transform it into something edible you are going to be really important.
“Anyone who can bond relationships between the community and bring that as part of the visitor experience – you are going to be important.“
Mr Cornish emphasised the value of getting people into nature and eating hand picked food through farm experiences.
“This is what people come out for and we need more of these food experiences,“ Mr Cornish said.
Some projects listed in the tourism strategy have existing funding while others will need to be sourced.
Cardinia Shire Bunyip Ward councillor Greame Moore said he will advocate for funding for the West Gippsland Food and Tourism Strategy.
“I congratulate this group for getting together and I’m here to support them,“ Mr Moore said.
“I’ve always believed these townships would make a really great tourism area and this is the opportunity.
“I can see something positive happening.“
Following a number of speeches, guests of the launch event enjoyed light finger food provided by the winery along with glasses of champagne to celebrate.
A showbag filled with local produce went home with all those who attended.