Byron outraged over festival ban but Queensland tourist sector prepares for a rush

The Easter mood in Byron Bay has turned sour over the cancellation of the famous Blues Festival but the Queensland tourism sector was overjoyed at the announcement that the lockdowns were over and a once unlikely recovery was now possible.

Apr 01, 2021, updated Apr 01, 2021
Festival goers leave the Bluesfest site after it was cancelled just hours before it was due to take place. (AAP Image/Jason O'Brien)

Festival goers leave the Bluesfest site after it was cancelled just hours before it was due to take place. (AAP Image/Jason O'Brien)

The RACQ was warning the highways out of Greater Brisbane were likely to be jammed from midday as people rushed for the exits to enjoy a holiday weekend.

But Byron was unlikely to be the magnet for tourists that it should have been. Music fans turning up the opening day of Byron Bay’s Bluesfest today were being turned away and musicians and festival suppliers were in uproar over the eleventh-hour cancellation of the festival over fears it would become a Covid super-spreader event.

The last-minute axing, ordered by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, has caused chaotic scenes at the Byron Bay site today and left artists devastated after the festival was billed as the “beacon of hope” for struggling musicians and performers.

Artists have branded the cancellation, estimated to cost the local economy at least $100 million, “absolutely disgusting” while food vendors have been left stranded with produce ready to sell to expected crowds of more than 15,000 daily.

Ticketholders, many being turned away at the gate, are also frustrated with many now fearing to stay in Byron Bay in case they risk getting infected due to the outbreak that caused the cancellation.

However, north of the border the Queensland Tourism Industry Council chief executive, Daniel Gschwind, said there was “relief, enormous relief, overwhelming joy’’ at the news of the end of Brisbane’s lockdown.

“Apparently there have been cheers in the streets of Brisbane the moment the announcement was made,” he said.

“It gives us a chance to recover the benefits we had hoped for this Easter.

“We do hope consumers will respond with enormous enthusiasm.

“We hope now the other states now respond by adjusting their return restrictions. Obviously we want them to come to Queensland from interstate but also to return home without complications.

“The effectiveness of the testing and tracing which has been demonstrated will help us avoid the kind of lockdown scenarios in the future. That is something we really want to work on to reduce the uncertainty that still lingers over us.

“We don’t want it to happen again. Surely their confidence would have now been boosted by the unbelievable tracing and testing efforts of the community. I think that really allowed us to come out of this lockdown and helps us avoid this scenario in the future.’’

The RACQ said there was likely to be extensive delays north and south of Brisbane because holidaymakers had not been able to stagger their departures in the days leading up to the Easter break.

This time it would be condensed into one afternoon.

The cancellation of the Blues Fest may not be permanent. NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he hoped festival would be postponed to a new date.

“While the cancellation of Bluesfest is disappointing for music lovers and the local community, I hope that ticket holders would support Bluesfest and hold on to their tickets as I understand Bluesfest will be working on a new date as soon as possible,” he said.

Live Performance Australia CEO Evelyn Richardson said the last-minute cancellation of the event featuring dozens of Australia’s biggest acts including Jimmy Barnes, Tash Sultana, John Butler, Kasey Chambers and The Cat Empire, left the industry scrambling and financially devastated.

“We have people being turned away told go home and an operator that has been running that festival for 30 years who has had the festival shut down two years in a row in an environment where nobody can get insurance for that,” she said.

“We can’t sustain another six or 12 months of this, of sudden lockdowns and being shut down,” she said.

Hussy Hicks vocalist Leesa Gentz, who had four gigs scheduled at Bluesfest, said the cancellation left her “gutted”.

“We see other major events going ahead in the sporting industry, but this was going to be the first major festival to go ahead in Australia in a year, and we weren’t given the chance,” Gentz told ABC Gold Coast.

“Over the past 12 months we’ve been jumping through hoops. Bluesfest is one of the biggest festivals in the country and I truly believe they would have been able to pull this off in a safe way.”

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Bluesfest was to have been the first major festival in Australia and possibly the world since last summer’s mass cancellations and shutdowns.

It had a capacity of 16,500 people daily over its five days, with three performance stages, plus camping. Operators had imposed limits of 50 per cent on normal capacity and production in the first-of-its kind COVID-19 Safety Plan for the music industry.

Bluesfest Director Peter Noble said the cancellation, within 24 hours of gates opening, had been very difficult and urged ticketholders not to turn up to the festival site.

“This is one of the most difficult statements I have ever had to make. We really wanted to be at the forefront of the return of live music at Pre-COVID-19 level.”

Gentz said the festival going ahead had been a “beacon of hope” in a devastating year for many artists.

“All of us have essentially said if Bluesfest goes ahead then that’s an indicator that the industry can get back to a place that’s reasonably normal,” she said.

“But it looks like that’s a very, very long way away now. The industry getting back to normal now feels further away than ever.”

Gold Coast-Brisbane indie folk trio TYDE posted on social media that the double standard of cancelling the event while sport was allowed to proceed was “disgusting”.

“Absolutely cut at this announcement,” TYDE wrote.

“While we believe we have to do the right thing to keep everyone safe, it’s disgusting that sports events in stadiums with no social distancing still go ahead (e.g. the Aus Open in Melbourne during peak lockdown, all the AFL and rugby games that went ahead in NSW and the Broncos game in Brissy just a few days ago).

“Absolutely disgusting that a seated, socially distanced arts event gets cancelled next to these sports games going ahead.”

Headliners Cat Empire also attacked the cancellation, saying the industry could “not afford” the loss.


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