DESPITE COVID-19 dealing a significant blow to his fledgling tourism business, staunch Riverlander Tony Sharley says it's an "exciting time" to be in the industry, particularly as his region pivots into new opportunities.
"We have a phenomenal opportunity to develop Riverland tourism further, because the stage we play on - the Murray River - is absolutely beautiful," he said.
Tony grew up in Renmark, before studying environmental science in Adelaide, after which he worked as a research scientist for a number of years, in places such as Kakadu National Park, NT.
He then worked in water policy with the Murray-Darling Basin Commission in Canberra, before returning to the Riverland in 1995 to work at the Primary Industries Research Centre in Loxton.
It was this role that took him out to the newly-opened Banrock Station Wine & Wetland Centre, where he taught staff about how the wetlands functioned.
"I had a background in wetland management, after working in Kakadu and I helped develop a wetland strategy at the MDBC," he said.
His knowledge drew the attention of the owners at Banrock, who hired Tony to manage the wine and wetlands centre in 1999.
"The wetlands were becoming a big drawcard, so improving on that was a big focus," he said.
"It was the first time people had been given access to that area, and it was such a beautiful view off the deck of the centre.
"But people wanted to walk through our vineyard and down to the water for a 'better look', which we were just not prepared for."
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By 2002, an eight-kilometre boardwalk trail was built to better direct tourists around the 250-hectare wetland.
"It made it a lot safer for tourists to get around the lagoons and became this magical experience that attracted people from everywhere," Tony said.
"In those first three years, we went from 40,000 visitors a year to 100,000 after the introduction of the boardwalk.
"The owners (Hardy Wine Company) would even bring buyers and distributors out to Australia and host them on a houseboat at Banrock Station.
"They were given an amazing experience, which generated more and more sales."
Well-known native food chef Andrew Fielke was also brought on board to design a region-focused menu.
"It turned Banrock into a tourism destination," Tony said.
In my time, there were more than 100 [environmental] project investments in 14 countries around the world.- TONY SHARLEY
He said the brand was further strengthened by a marketing initiative that promised 2 cents from every wine bottle sold being put towards environmental projects (about $1 million a year).
"In my time, there were more than 100 project investments in 14 countries around the world," he said.
"We were part of the reintroduction of Atlantic salmon back into Lake Ontario; reintroduction of otters back into the wetlands of The Netherlands; we worked on endangered species with the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK; and we even radio tracked polar bears in the Arctic Circle to see how their behaviours were changing due to climate change."
Some of the money also went towards reinstating the Banrock wetlands, which had been full since Lock 3 was built in 1925.
"Australian wetlands don't work like that," Tony said.
"Normally wetlands flood, dry out, flood, and dry out again on an annual cycle - it promotes a productivity boom every time a dry wetland is flooded.
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"Banrock being permanently full wasn't healthy - the solution to restoring that wetland to its greatest potential was to dry it out.
"After building regulators on the river and drying it out, we killed about 30 tonnes of carp, which had been causing enormous damage in the lagoons.
"After the first refill, the water was so clear, it promoted more plant growth."
The Banrock wetlands was awarded RAMSAR protection in 2003 - a title that saved the wetlands during the Millennium drought, as the Commonwealth was obliged to provide environmental flows when needed.
It was a tough time in water politics, but Tony said it was an amazing learning experience.
"We also got to witness our customers have the most amazing experience, with a wine brand that was doing incredible things for the environment and people really wanted to support that sort of thing," he said.
"The whole experience opened my eyes to tourism."
AFTER Banrock Station, Tony Sharley became the general manager of newly-established council-funded tourism organisation Destination Riverland.
He was in that role and at Banrock during the Millennium drought, which Tony said highlighted the vulnerability of the Riverland economy.
"So much of our GDP is based on horticulture and irrigation," he said.
"I loved my wine tourism experience at Banrock that I thought why not help diversify our economy?
"That's where the idea of establishing Murray River Trails came from."
Tony and his family have run the award-winning river-based eco-tourism business at Renmark since 2016.
The Murray River, with its cliffs and red gum trees, is such a really great stage with which to create a magical experience for visitors.- TONY SHARLEY
"I have always found that combination of food and wine and nature, particularly in an awesome setting like the Murray River, with its cliffs and red gum trees, is such a really great stage with which to create a magical experience for visitors," he said.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing, with COVID-19 striking in their fourth year in business. But Tony said they focused on pivoting the business by diversifying the types of tours they offered, while also reassessing how to make those tours more COVID-friendly.
"We are also trying to attract more of the SA market, which included participating in the Great State voucher program, while SA travel agents have been proactive in spruiking the business to their state-bound customers," he said.
"Once they reopen the borders, we don't expect a mad rush, but we are anticipating a much busier 2022."
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