‘A multifaceted debacle’: Joy and relief in countdown to NSW border reopening

‘A multifaceted debacle’: Joy and relief in countdown to NSW border reopening

In the 20 weeks since NSW snapped its southern border shut, the people of Echuca-Moama have been living what hotelier Mindi Abel can only describe as "a multifaceted debacle".

Traffic banks up from the bridge checkpoint through the breadth of the Echuca CBD. Resorts on the Moama side, in long-open NSW, sit empty and idle.

Managing director of Murray River Paddlesteamers, Rohan Burgess, on the PS Emmylou.Credit:Joe Armao

Separation within a citizenry fond of the informal motto "two towns, one community" has sowed anxiety and, in some cases, mistrust.

For a time, even the whistles from the famous paddlesteamers fell silent.

To the endless relief of Echuca-Moama's 22,000 residents, it all ends at 12.01am on Monday.

"I’m very pleased to say when the border opens on Monday we’re going to be frantically busy," says Ms Abel, owner of Moama's Perricoota Vines Retreat.

"It looks like we’re going to get our happy ending, but by geez it’s been tough."

The closed border, softened by various iterations of confusing border bubble travel zones and permits, has been devastating for interconnected twin-town economies the length of the border, but nowhere more than Echuca-Moama.

Unlike Albury-Wodonga, for example, which has distinct shopping and business districts on either side of the river, Moama doesn't have a CBD, library, hospital or even a bank.

Many of its 6000 residents rely on Echuca for work, shopping or school and have no choice but to cross the border every day.

At its busiest, the checkpoint at the community's only bridge (a second is in construction after decades of campaigning) blows commute times from two minutes to two hours.

Mindi Abel, owner of Moama’s Perricoota Vines Retreat, at the police checkpoint on the community’s only bridge.Credit:Joe Armao

Drivers from at least one restaurant walk deliveries across the footbridge, where the checkpoint moves faster, to another car waiting on the other side, lest the pizzas get cold.

Similarly, elderly people reliant on taxis will order a ride to the bridge, walk the considerable distance to the other side, then hail another driver so as to avoid an exorbitant fare in traffic gridlock.

Victorian tradies can work in Moama, but have been barred by health orders from getting a drink or lunch outside their worksite, locals say.

The Sunday Age has also been told of isolated incidents in which Moama police have been called because an Echuca resident has been spotted, and dobbed in, at a bar on the forbidden side of the border.

"We are Victorian people living in NSW. And Moama has just got completely messed up in the middle," says Julianne Daly, owner of Moama's Border Inn.

"It has divided the country, divided the states and divided our Echuca-Moama."

According to Echuca-Moama Tourism, almost 80 per cent of visitors to Moama come from Victoria.

However under the NSW rules Victorians can only cross into Moama if they live in the 50-kilometre border bubble and (or) have an approved reason. This does not include socialising.

Meanwhile, people from from NSW have been told to avoid travelling to border zones.

It means that while Echuca has been thriving since Melbourne's ring of steel came down this month, Moama has been left in a business black hole.

The Echuca-Moama bridge. After decades of campaigning, a second bridge is under construction. Credit:Joe Armao

Perricoota Vines Retreat would normally net $30,000 on Melbourne Cup weekend. This year, Ms Abel had just two guests in its 75 rooms.

Michael Curtin, the operations manager at the Border Inn, says people in Moama have felt isolated and increasingly "bitter" at NSW bureaucrats and politicians.

"The big disconnect was that the people making decisions about our area didn’t know our area, had never been to our area, and didn’t understand the mechanics of it," he says.

In the first weeks of the border closure, paddlesteamer businesses, which board their passengers from Echuca's historic port on the Victorian side, were not allowed to operate because the river was technically NSW territory.

This is despite no passengers ever disembarking in NSW, unless they decided to swim.

After weeks of campaigning and conversations with NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, common sense had prevailed by September.

Murray River Paddlesteamers, which operates the PS Emmylou and 107-year-old PS Canberra, is almost 70 per cent down in revenue, but is busy again thanks to stir-crazy Melbourne holiday-makers.

"The story from here is that people will be moving around in regional Australia again," managing director Rohan Burgess says.

"All our businesses – pubs, bakeries, little milk bars – we’re all going to benefit. Maybe we’ll even have a little boom that will get us back on our feet."

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