Newcastle claims Easter pro surf tour, Bells Beach in doubt over quarantine concerns

The Australian leg of the surfing world championships will launch at Newcastle’s Merewether Beach at Easter, after a last-minute pitch to host the event at Lennox Head was rejected amid community backlash.

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

It will be the first time since 1961 that the event will not be held at Bells Beach in Torquay, Victoria, thanks to uncertainty over hotel quarantine arrangements.

Riding high: Ryan Callinan slams back off the lip at Bells during his run to the semi-finals.Credit:Justin McManus

Instead 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.

The tour, which will attract 52 of the best international and Australian surfers, is being heralded as an economic boon for the region, but it very nearly happened 600km away.

The Australian leg of the WSL competition is held at three locations: Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Coolangatta in Queensland, Margaret River Pro in Western Australia and the Rip Curl Pro in Bells Beach, Torquay.

When COVID-19 forced WSL to cancel a recent event in Santa Cruz, California, organisers quickly turned to NSW to host a fourth championship event.

The Deputy Premier said claiming a WSL event, for the first time in 30 years, was a huge coup for the state.

Early morning training session at Bells beach, Rip Curl Pro. 11th April 2017. The Age Fairfaxmedia News Picture by JOE ARMAOCredit:Joe Armao

“This event will inject millions of dollars into the local economy and broadcast Newy’s iconic beaches to millions of people around the world,” he said.

However just six days ago it was scenes of surf breaks at Lennox Head, 15 minutes from Byron Bay, that organisers planned to broadcast across the globe.

WSL organisers last week approached Ballina local mayor David Wright to propose Lennox Head as the location for the fourth event.

The Bells Beach leg is in doubt over quarantine requirements.

Mr Wright said he advised WSL to seek consulation and speak to native title holders and that the event would most likely need to run without spectators.

“The initial response was positive. The chamber of commerce supported it, the [local] board riders supported it for our young surfers. The Deputy Premier was coming on Thursday to announce it,” Mr Wright said.

“Then on Monday we started getting an avalanche of calls and emails in opposition.“

Among community concerns was access being restricted to local bushland for ten days and the risk of COVID-19 from international travellers. Locals also expressed concern about the Easter long weekend, when the area already receives an influx of domestic holidaymakers.

At an extraordinary council meeting called on Wednesday, the proposal was voted down 7-2.

“I got in touch with John Barilaro’s office straight away. It completely took me by surprise,” Mr Wright said.

The member for Ballina, Greens MP Tamara Smith, said the push to have the surf championship at Lennox Head had been “a strong arm move” that showed the government was out of step with her local community.

“They got it completely wrong. Look at the tennis. There is a percentage of people coming from overseas that have COVID-19, and running an event like that puts strain on our health system.“

Ms Smith said with a longer lead time and more community consultation such an event could be better managed in future.

WSL is yet to finalise the dates of the three other Australian leg events. However a spokesman on Saturday confirmed they would be going ahead, including at Bells Beach, in accordance with any state border closures.

The Rip Curl Pro, formerly the Bells Beach Surf Classic, has been held annually over Easter weekend in Torquay, Victoria, which sits on the Surf Coast at the beginning of the Great Ocean Road.

Many of the world’s premier surfers have won the title, including Kelly Slater and Sunny Garcia and Australian world champions Mick Fanning, Taj Burrow, Stephanie Louise Gilmore, Joel Parkinson, Sally Fitzgibbons and Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo.

The Victorian government on Friday refused to elaborate on whether the event would be held at Bells Beach this year.

“We are working closely with the World Surf League on plans for the Rip Curl Pro,” a spokesman said.

The competition is an invaluable source of revenue and cultural touchstone for the Surf Coast, Torquay and nearby Jan Juc, bringing thousands of fans to the towns over the weekend.

The 2020 competition was cancelled due to the pandemic.

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