Plans for a proposed eco-hotel at the National Arboretum will have to go back to the drawing board after COVID-19 ruined the ACT Government’s pitch to national and international operators.
The government went to the market in October 2019 seeking a developer to design, build and operate the envisaged luxury accommodation complex among the trees.
Under National Capital Authority guidelines, the hotel, to be built on Forests 69 and 76 south of Dairy Farmers Hill, could be no taller than two storeys with environmentally sustainable buildings blended in with the landscape and existing Arboretum buildings.
It would include a maximum of only 40 rooms catering for about 100 guests, contained within Forest 69, currently radiata pine.
But any initial interest from five-star luxury brands disappeared once the pandemic hit, borders closed, international and domestic travel was disrupted and occupation rates plummeted.
It is believed the government will need to review the situation, devise a new pitch and again go to the market, but probably not until next year after the vaccine roll-out and hopefully, the pandemic has receded.
University of Canberra tourism expert Dr Naomi Dale said the hotel was still a good idea to pursue because, while the city may have new hotels coming online, few experience-based offerings take advantage of Canberra’s natural assets.
“This will add a bit more diversity to the types of places you can stay in,” she said.
Dr Dale said people were prepared to pay for experiences rather than properties, such as Jamala Lodge at the National Zoo and Aquarium.
A tastefully developed hotel at the Arboretum would attract a bigger share of regional NSW travellers and be a big selling point to the international market.
“Being able to be in what they [international travellers] would consider a natural environment is really exciting to them, and be something quite accessible from the city as opposed to being a couple of hours out of town, where they might not have access to other attractions,” Dr Dale said.
A survey of Singapore Airline visitors had shown that experiences as simple as walking around the lake offered something more adventurous than what they had at home.
Dr Dale said the government would be looking for someone quite specific to develop the hotel, but not necessarily those that operate in remote locations, the Arboretum being more of a hybrid idea.
She believes the investment appetite would eventually return but finding the skilled staff for such a venture would remain challenging.
”They’ve been sitting on their hands for 18 months, so they will be itching to do something so perhaps tapping into those newer markets will be appealing,” Dr Dale said.
But she warned that even when international flights resume it will take years for the tourism sector to recover.
The National Arboretum is now one of Canberra’s most popular attractions and has opened new walking trails and gardens in recent times.
Director Scott Saddler said at the time of the market sounding that accommodation had always been part of the original design.
“This will be immersed in its own forest, own landscaping, own turf and will add to the amenity and beautification of the National Arboretum,” he said.