Granite Island woes: where to for Victor Harbor's major tourist attraction?

A passionate volunteer group is pushing for government and council to develop a plan to reinvigorate and better manage Victor Harbor’s major tourist attraction.

Last week, the decline of Granite Island spread beyond the ailing Little Penguin population, with the island’s kiosk and gift shop closing their doors on Tuesday, January 27.

While the lease for the island-based penguin centre expired yesterday (Wednesday, February 4), centre volunteer Dorothy Longden said it will continue to operate for at least the next four months, on a contractual basis.

“We’re doing our best to keep it open, because it is needed,” she said.

“We’re still up and running, and doing the tours at night.”

Aside from the penguin centre, activities for visitors to the island still include walking trails, and Big Duck Boat Tours (which are run by a private business).

However, a trip on the horse drawn tram now takes visitors to the empty kiosk.

If this goes belly-up, the council is the biggest loser.

Friends of Granite Island chairman John Biggins

The Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) has jurisdiction over the causeway, the island and the commercial leases of its buildings, while the City of Victor Harbor cares for the horse drawn tram.

A decision by the former lessees of the island, the Gunn Group, not to renew, has left the island and its facilities in limbo. 

Gunn Group’s managing director Andrew Gunn has previously cited reasons such as a lack of state government and council help in running the facilities, exorbitant rates, and red tape, as reasons for the decision.

On Tuesday, February 3, a spokesperson for the DEWNR said several companies have contacted the department regarding future opportunities on the island.

The spokesperson said the department hopes “to have some temporary kiosk-type facilities in place very soon” and stressed that the penguin centre is still operating.

Volunteer group Friends of Granite Island (FoGI) believes key stakeholders - the government, council, schools, universities, the community and local business - should simplify the island’s governance and develop a plan for its future.

FoGI chairman John Biggins said there is currently a lack of collaboration between the stakeholders, “with the majority having no interest nor responsibility in managing visitor experiences on the island”.

John said other contributing factors to the island’s woes were a lack of vision for the island’s future, and a lack of funding.

John said the new governance needs stakeholders to have the mandate, authority and personnel required to determine future plans, and to be able to commit necessary resources.

“We need them to make firm commitments to what contribution they’re going to make,” he said.

“If this goes belly-up, the council is the biggest loser.

“The council needs to maintain it for the businesses, the local economy.

“The people will come here. 

“The businesses need to be smart to find out ‘how do we engage with these people, how do we get them to spend money’?”

FoGI began in February 2013, has about 14 registered members, and a core group of about seven who regularly volunteer time to improve the island’s landscape.

Its members - who are passionate about reinvigorating the island - control weeds and reintroduce native plant species, having planted 1500 plants since the group began.

According to the group, it is difficult to get the local community interested in volunteering on the island, despite FoGI members constantly receiving praise for their work from those who walk past.

“There’s this incredible apathy in this place,” John said.

“People walk past and say ‘you’re doing a great job’ but they won’t join and volunteer.

“I think it’s to do with a lack of understanding as to how important Granite Island is to Victor Harbor’s economy.”

Visitor numbers to Granite Island are estimated by the state government to be between 700,000 and 800,000 per year (not 70,000-80,000 as incorrectly reported in The Times last week).

Despite those numbers, John believes the island’s contribution to the social, environmental and economic prosperity of the local community has been misunderstood and undervalued.

“The island covers the marketing bills,” he said.

“It contributes to tourism numbers.

“It’s frustrating that we’re not enhancing it.”

A deterioration in the island’s assets - both natural and built - and a decline in the variety and quality of products and services for visitors are the consequences of undervaluing the island’s importance, according to John.

“This has resulted in a decline in visitor numbers to Victor Harbor while neighbouring towns - Port Elliot and Goolwa - have experienced increased numbers,” he said.

“The continuation of this will negatively impact the socio-economic vitality and viability of Victor Harbor.”

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Among a list of ideas, FoGI’s suggestions include council forming a dedicated ‘Granite Island Committee’,

interpretive walks on the island, fitness stations to cater for locals’ daily exercise, and a playground.

John said the island needs a strategic plan to enhance visitors’ experiences, which will increase their likelihood of returning.

He also said an action plan needs to detail the development and management of the island’s products and services.

The implementation of those plans has been detailed in a project brief John has written for the island’s current stakeholders, titled Visitor Strategy for Granite Island Nature Park (the ‘Park’).

Councillors and a Victor Harbor Visitor Information Centre volunteer raised their concerns about the future of Granite Island at the City of Victor Harbor Council meeting on Tuesday, January 27.

DEWNR and City of Victor Harbor officials met on Wednesday, February 4, to discuss options for future arrangements on the island.

“We will keep the community updated as soon as we can confirm more details,” the DEWNR spokesperson said.

City of Victor Harbor mayor Graham Philp said securing the future of Granite Island and the penguin population is a high priority for the council, as it is aware of the island's importance to the community.

He said council understand the community's frustration, but needs to respect government processes and the confidential nature of negotiations with potential lessees.

"We know there have been some positive discussions with potential lessees, which is great news for our community and the future of this important regional asset," Mr Philp said.

"We are hopeful the nature of these discussions will soon be publicly announced."

For more information about FoGI, or to volunteer with the group, contact fogi@bigpond.com