Tourism war of words

Bryce Eishold

Gippsland’s peak tourism body has hit back at suggestions the organisation is “abandoning Walhalla and the mountain rivers region” and that its chief executive was “using bullying tactics and intimidation” against one of its members.

Walhalla Mountain Rivers Tourism Association president Russell Wright made the allegations of bullying and intimidation on Friday during an interview with The Express following a phone call from Destination Gippsland chief executive Terry Robinson to Mr Wright.

Following the phone call, Destination Gippsland wrote to Mr Wright stating his “unprofessional behaviour cannot be ignored and will not be tolerated” and that his “intimidatory behaviour” had “caused considerable stress to individuals” at the organisation.

The letter signed by Mr Robinson came after Mr Wright was quoted in The Express questioning how a $33,000 Baw Baw Shire Council contribution to Destination Gippsland would be spent to promote Walhalla and the surrounding area.

Mr Wright said on Friday Destination Gippsland had “suspended” the Walhalla Mountain Rivers Tourism Association “from working relationships and communication” following the comments published earlier this month “until a public apology was made.”

However, The Express understands this was not the case and that Mr Robinson requested future correspondence from Mr Wright and the WMRTA be directed through him after correspondence from Mr Wright to Destination Gippsland staff was considered “intimidatory”.

“These media comments and email correspondence are not only distracting to our work they also damage the reputation of both of our organisations,” the letter from Destination Gippsland to Mr Wright read.

“I consider your communication directed at staff members and about Destination Gippsland to be intimidatory behaviour and note that they have caused considerable stress to individuals and contribute to an unhealthy work environment.”

However, Mr Wright’s take on the matter was somewhat different, claiming Destination Gippsland was seeking an apology after Mr Wright, as president of the WMRTA, criticised poor tourist numbers during the festive season.

Several businesses reported mixed results in tourism spend during the Christmas period in the Walhalla area in a story published in The Express on January 3.

“We are well within our rights to pass comment and provide feedback of the realities of what is happening on the ground in relation to tourist numbers visiting the region,” Mr Wright said.

“They are the peak tourism body in Gippsland and we are meant to be able to turn to them to say when things are good and when things are bad but evidently Destination Gippsland only wants to hear about the good and not the bad.

“They’re basically abandoning Walhalla and the mountain rivers region.”

But in a statement, Destination Gippsland chairman Sue Smethurst commended Mr Robinson as a “calm, measured and considered” chief executive before addressing her concerns about Mr Wright.

“The board of Destination Gippsland takes matters of workplace safety and wellbeing very seriously and we are deeply disappointed with the unjustified comments from the president of the Walhalla Mountain Rivers Tourism Association,” the statement read.

“Walhalla is an important and much-loved destination on the Gippsland tourism map and to the contrary of Mr Wright’s comments we will continue to support Walhalla and it’s many small businesses and operators with whom we have excellent and valued relations, with long-planned and long-term strategic marketing activities, campaigns and initiatives of which Mr Wright is well aware.

“In the future, we look forward to a positive contribution from Mr Wright to the promotion of Walhalla.”