‘Bitterly disappointing’: Loss of Bells Beach surfing event to sting economy

A Torquay councillor is claiming the “bitterly disappointing” loss of the Bells Beach Easter weekend surfing competition will cost the region millions, as the Victorian government continues talks with organisers to return the event to the state next year.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro revealed on Saturday the government had secured the opening round of the World Surf League Championship Tour for Newcastle from April 1-11.

Australian surfer Wade Carmichael during the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach.

It will be the first time since 1961 that the Rip Curl Pro surfing event will not be held at Bells Beach, near Torquay.

General manager of the World Surfing League Andrew Stark that the “only way” to get the group of international surfers into the country and through 14-day quarantine was through NSW.

“We obviously love Bells Beach, we love that event. But the first event this year, due to the pandemic and the challenging circumstances, has to happen in NSW because that’s where the charter’s landing,” he told The Today Show on Sunday.

“It was early January and we still weren’t clear on whether the charter could land or not, and obviously Victoria were facing the issues regarding the tennis at the time. Look, we needed a solution.

“It’s a tough decision that’s happening in global sport a lot right now but we’ve just got stay alive and keep the tour alive.”

A charter flight of up to 150 passengers will fly from Los Angeles to Sydney Airport ahead of the event, before all passengers complete 14 days in NSW hotel quarantine.

Surf Coast Shire councillor Paul Barker said the disappearance of the coveted event so close to when it was scheduled to begin would cost the local economy millions of dollars, “a loss our region will no doubt feel”.

“All the locals, they share the same disappointment. Some are happy given the COVID-19 health concerns, but there are many who are bitterly disappointment also given it’s a tradition of 60 years,” he said.

“I wish City of Newcastle all the best, but I look forward to the event returning to the Surf Coast and its traditional home at Bells Beach as soon as possible.”

The Australian leg of the World Surfing League competition, which attracts the best international and Australian surfers, is usually held at three locations: Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Coolangatta in Queensland, Margaret River Pro in Western Australia and the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach, Victoria.

But when COVID-19 forced the league to cancel a recent event in Santa Cruz, California, organisers turned to NSW to host a fourth championship event.

Whether a leg of the international surfing event will be held on the Surf Coast is still in doubt, less than two months out from the major drawcard on the Victorian sporting calendar.

Surf Coast Shire mayor Libby Stapleton said she was “confident” a solution would be worked out, with Bells Beach possibly hosting one of the other three surfing events slated for April.

“There’s the potential that we still have a great Easter, then the added bonus of an event later,” she said.

“No one wants to see Bells not happen, but we want to work within the current health restrictions and be realistic about what’s possible.

“It’s such an exciting time for the community – all the young kids who live on the Surf Coast just grow up wanting to see their heroes compete every year.”

Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said he wasn’t aware of how the NSW government’s quarantine situation differed to Victoria’s, but he said Sport and Major Events Minister Martin Pakula is currently in talks to have the first instalment of the series return to Bells Beach next year.

“As I understand it Mr Pakula and his team are working through those issues to make sure that in 2022, the Rip Curl Pro returns to its traditional home,” he told reporters on Sunday morning.

But Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said the state government’s “dithering has let NSW swoop and grab the coveted Easter slot” for the tournament.

“Major events are vital to Victoria’s economy and our confidence,” he said in a post on Facebook.
“This isn’t just a blow to jobs on the Surf Coast, it’s a blow to our claim as the major events capital of Australia.”

With David Estcourt and Benjamin Preiss

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