By JOHN DOOLEY

DURING more than 50 years in business here, restaurateur and hotelier Don Carrazza has seen some economic ups and downs, but nothing to compare to the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Carrazza, PICTURED, thinks the return to ‘normal’ is a long way off, and the road to recovery, which will be challenging for many as they attempt to resurrect their businesses, must be paved with a concerted effort to rekindle our tourism industry.

“I don’t see things returning to normal overnight,” he said.

“I think people still harbour some fears about the virus and that it may still be something that can affect them and their families, and so they will be very cautious. 

“I believe it could very well be six to 12 months before we see a return to what it was like before this downturn struck.

“We need to promote Mildura well and say to people ‘it is safe here’. We are in the middle of the desert and we haven’t had many cases here, and the ones we did have, came from out of town.” 

Mr Carrazza said in doing so we can rebuild the tourism, particularly amongst the retirees who have the desire to travel and the means to do so.

“While we cater for tourism on one hand, on another, we don’t. There are virtually no packaged tours bringing people to Mildura or coach trips taking them to various places and so there is a growth opportunity in that sector,” he said.

The ever-entrepreneurial Mr Carrazza has been an innovator, an investor and long-time employer in the hospitality sector, which he says has been the hardest hit during the more than three month shutdown of restaurants, cafes, pubs and clubs across the nation.

“It’s been something that has been beyond the imagination of many people and especially in the hospitality industry, which has been one of the worst-affected,” he said.

“In my case, I have a lot of eggs in the one basket and for me and others in hospitality it has been a very tough three months.

“We do need to compliment the government in the way that they have kept this terrible disease away from many regional and country areas where it has largely been kept at bay.

“That’s been a big plus. If you look at the rest of the world, they are in a far worse situation than we are in Australia. 

“But there is no doubt for hospitality and indeed the whole economy it has been a real disaster − an absolute disaster.”

Mr Carrazza said that Mildura has been lucky in some ways because not all sectors have been adversely affected. 

“Agriculture has continued to operate as usual and the grain season looks like being a good one, albeit some concern exists with the tariffs that the Chinese have put on our barley exports. Meanwhile our citrus, dried fruits and tablegrapes are going well,” he said.

“However, Mildura’s reliance on hospitality and the tourist dollar is enormous and we need to spearhead a recovery with that firmly as a priority.

“This is a sector that is vital to our prosperity, and without a vibrant and buoyant local economy you can’t provide for the other essential services that are needed in your community.

“In recent years we haven’t done enough to attract tourists to Mildura. We’ve lacked the passion to really tap into the retiree market in particular.”

Mr Carrazza points to the activities in the early 1960s and through the 1970s that turned Mildura into a popular destination.

“It was one of the few locations that had really discovered what tourism was about,” Mr Carrazza said.

“In the 1970s there were more than 32 motels built in the town to provide accommodation for the tourists coming here through the promotion done in the preceding years.

“I recall the president of the tourism industry in the early 60s, Dick Neville, who was amazed at the number of visitors Mildura attracted with major events like the Bowling Carnival and Golf Week. 

“We are no longer a premier destination. Now is the time to see what can be done to really attract the tourism market from New Zealand and the whole of Australia to Mildura.”

The jewell in the Carrazza crown is the Mildura Grand Hotel, which Mr Carrazza purchased more than 30 years ago. 

Today the hotel is managed by Quality Hotels and each of the restaurants and bars have individual lessors operating them.

Like all accommodation houses in Australia, the Grand fell victim to the coronavirus and has seen virtually zero occupancy in the past few months.

“It has devastated the Grand of course and you can’t expect the leaseholders to pay you the full rental rates because they don’t have the earnings,” Mr Carrazza said.

“Therefore you have to co-operate and work with them through this difficulty to ensure they are still there at the end of the process, otherwise you’ll end up with an empty building.

“The same applies with the restaurants, and we have worked amicably through this period, because I want them to still be standing – to be able to continue to operate when this is all over. 

“They are good operators who I want to see resume their businesses.”