Station tourism thrives as drought takes a hold

Station tourism thrives as drought takes a hold

Life & Style
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WINNING a SA Tourism Award last month has been a highlight in what has been one of the worst years on record for the McInnis family at their Flinders Ranges station.

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SHARON and Allen McInnis run Flinders Bush Retreats on their property east of Hawker and if it wasn't for tourism, they would have had to walk away from the family's 140-year history on the land.

The couple took on the 4400-hectare station in 2010, after the original 26,315ha property was subdivided between the McInnis family.

"Unfortunately our patch wasn't going to be enough to sustain our family, particularly when our fifth child was on the way," Sharon said.

"Allen was a shearer, so he was away working full-time. He would be away five days a week and then when he came home on the weekends, he would be working on our farm - it was really hard."

That's when they decided to look into farm stays to enable Allen to be home more.

"We were already having to build shearer accommodation, so we thought why not turn that into tourist accommodation for the other times of the year?" Sharon said.

The drought made people think outside the square about what they can do on-farm to make extra income. - SHARON McINNIS

They built their first four-bedroom house in 2013.

"We had seen other stations get into tourism after the Millennium Drought through the Station Stays SA cluster," Sharon said.

"The drought made people think outside the square about what they can do on-farm to make extra income."

In 2014, the McInnises added an eco-tent to take advantage of the growing interest in "glamping".

"Both accommodations became so popular that by 2016, we decided to renovate an old house on-farm," Sharon said.

Once completed, it was about when Sharon said they began to notice the drought taking a hold.

"We didn't get any rain during the 2017 winter," she said.

By October of that year, they were forced to sell off their 30-breeder cattle herd, and over the past three years, have destocked their Merino flock from 2000 breeding ewes to hand-feeding 450 ewes.

"We shear in January and will have to make a decision then on whether to sell the lot," Sharon said.

"We are trying to hang on, but it's not looking good."

Generally averaging 250 millimetres to 280mm annual rainfall, the station only received 150mm in 2017, 100mm last year, and 78mm to-date this year.

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Sharon said tourism had become their main source of income and would be for the "foreseeable future".

"Thankfully the beauty of the Flinders Ranges isn't lost during a drought," she said.

"People come to the outback and expect it is going to be harsh and dry, there's going to be red dirt.

"There may be less vegetation and wildflowers at the moment, but the mountains and gum creeks are still amazing, as are the sunrise and sunsets."

It was the third year the McInnises had entered the SA Tourism Awards in the self-contained accommodation category.

In the first year, they were awarded a bronze, last year it was silver, and then the gold gong this year.

"It is good to be recognised for the constant development of our tourism business," Sharon said.

"Receiving the gold award has given us confidence in our farm's future combining agriculture with tourism."

Flinders Bush Retreats goes on to represent SA at the Australian Tourism Awards in Canberra on March 6.

BUSIEST YEAR FOR BUSINESS DESPITE DRY 

THE McInnis family have been part of the Station Stays SA cluster since they began their Flinders Bush Retreats tourism business near Hawker six years ago.

"Station Stays SA was formed in November 2009 when a group of pastoral tourism businesses in the Flinders Ranges and outback regions of SA got together for the first time to discuss various challenges and how they might be able to work together," Sharon McInnis said.

"Since then, Station Stays SA was supported through Reginal Development Australia - Far North until this year, when we became incorporated and recently held our first annual general meeting.

"Station Stays SA has 27 member properties throughout the Flinders Ranges and outback.

"Every year demand has increased, but this year has been our biggest with the news of Uluru closing and floodwaters reaching Kati Thanda Lake Eyre."

So many South Australians want to come and explore their own backyard. - SHARON McINNIS

Sharon said they averaged about 86 per cent occupancy through their operating months of March to November. They get a mix of interstate and international tourists, but the biggest demand comes from SA locals.

"So many South Australians want to come and explore their own backyard," she said.

"Even in drought, the beauty of the Flinders Ranges shines through and keeps the punters coming."

SA Tourism Commission figures, from December 2013 to March 2019, show visitation to the region is on the rise, while domestic and international expenditure has reached $454 million - up 43pc.

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