Collie putting itself on the map as unlikely tourism hero

Jacinta CantatoreSouth Western Times
Collie Visitor Centre manager Janine Page at the Weelington Dam mural.
Camera IconCollie Visitor Centre manager Janine Page at the Weelington Dam mural. Credit: Picture: Jacinta Cantatore

In a State as big as WA, we are lucky we can still keep some of our idyllic holiday spots hidden.

But a spike in holidaymakers exploring more of their own State has revealed Collie as an unlikely hero of WA tourism.

Visitor numbers to the town’s tourism centre have doubled in the past nine months and accommodation providers are scrambling to keep up with demand.

Over the past decade Collie has been undergoing a transition from the coalface of WA’s mining and industrial sector to become a diamond in the South West rough.

The “not just mining” town is filled with rich cultural history, a national art prize, world-class mountain bike trails and is now home to the biggest dam mural in the world.

The 8000sqm mega-mural was painted by internationally-renowned Australian artist Guido van Helten as the centrepiece Collie Mural Trail.
Camera IconThe 8000sqm mega-mural was painted by internationally-renowned Australian artist Guido van Helten as the centrepiece Collie Mural Trail. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

Guido Van Helten completed the 8000sqm artwork in December and the mural has become a major tourism hotspot.

Collie Visitor Centre manager Janine Page said visitor numbers had surged since the Wellington Dam mural was completed.

“The reaction has been amazement from most people; they’re completely awed by the painting and how good it looks,” she said.

“It’s more than doubled the number of tourists coming through town.”

Ms Page said each weekend the town’s restaurants, accommodation and camp grounds were booked out in advance, and national park campsites were already booked to capacity for the upcoming school holidays.

Ms Page said the mural had put a focus on Collie’s strong arts culture.

“We’ve always had that focus on the arts, but this has put a focus on it in a different light,” she said.

“It’s making people realise Collie has a lot to offer, not just in the arts but in the outdoors and nature spaces as well.”

The town’s mountain bike trails have been a consistent drawcard, with new trails under construction for months now.

Young Collie mountain bike rider Marshall Putland, 14, gets some air along the Arklow Trail.
Camera IconYoung Collie mountain bike rider Marshall Putland, 14, gets some air along the Arklow Trail. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Shannon Verhagen

“There are mountain bike trails in the national park, as well as two networks within the town centre, and a new section is due to open in the next month.” Ms Page said.

“We’ve also had Lake Kepwari open in December last year and that’s had a positive impact on our visitor numbers,

“It’s a big water ski lake, so it’s brought a lot of water skiers and adventure enthusiasts to town.”

More eco-minded tourists have also added the town to their itineraries since Collie plugged in to the electric highway in July 2019.

Collie's EV station is located in the town centre.
Camera IconCollie's EV station is located in the town centre. Credit: Picture: Jacinta Cantatore

The fast-charger 50kW EV charging station in the town’s CBD has both the CHAdeMO and the CCS2, or “Type2”, charging cables, making it suitable for most electric vehicles.

But regardless how you get there, anyone planning a trip to Collie is advised to book well in advance.

Demand is outstripping capacity at national park sites and private providers are struggling to meet demand.

Collie River Valley Tourist Park owners Patrick and Lorna Honeywill said their accommodation was now booking out months in advance and occupancy rates were up 30 per cent on 2019 bookings.

“A couple of years ago we could go days without a new booking, but now we don’t have a day without sales anymore,” Mr Honeywill said.

Collie River Valley Tourist Park owners Patrick and Lorna Honeywill.
Camera IconCollie River Valley Tourist Park owners Patrick and Lorna Honeywill.

Their caravan sites and cabins have been full since mid-September, well before the school holidays began.

“Usually we are booked out for the long weekends each year, but now we are booked out most weekends,” Mr Honeywill said.

The couple haven’t had a day off since April, but have had to make time to finish their pet project, Gargoyle Lodge, a 1920s renovated home that sleeps up to eight people.

This guest house is also booked out well into December.

Mr Honeywill believes their family-run business has been helped along by WA residents able to holiday only within the State, but the other realities of COVID had also hit the business hard.

Perth and Peel residents forced to cancel their long weekend travel plans due to lockdowns last year and early this year were refunded in full. Some opted to reschedule their plans with the incentive of a free night’s accommodation.

The park stayed afloat during the tougher months last year thanks to JobKeeper payments, which were enough to tide the park over to accommodate the boom over the past nine months.

“Most people who couldn’t go to Bali bought a caravan and those people are now caravanning within WA,” he said.

Collie River Valley Tourist Park owners Patrick and Lorna Honeywill with their family.
Camera IconCollie River Valley Tourist Park owners Patrick and Lorna Honeywill with their family.

“People who come here tell us they are coming to small towns, even smaller towns than ours, to spend money there and keep these places going,” Mrs Honeywill said.

“They know towns have struggled with fewer tourists so they are doing their bit to spend their money in these small towns. We’re so lucky to live in a State where people have that attitude.”

With the social distance tourist in mind, Mr Honeywill created a series of self-guided tours for visitors to his park via the What3words App, which take visitors on self-drive and walking tours to see some of Collie’s main attractions using GPS locators and audio recordings.

One of these tours helps visitors navigate parts of the Collie Mural Trail, a series of more than 40 murals around the town celebrating the area’s history.

Part of this strong history has been art, a feature of the town reinforced by the opening of Collie Art gallery in 2015.

Collie Art Gallery committee member Emma Headley and gallery volunteer Hazel Boardman.
Camera IconCollie Art Gallery committee member Emma Headley and gallery volunteer Hazel Boardman.

The A-Class rating of the space makes it second only to the Art Gallery of WA and the exhibitions it has housed have matched this quality.

First to hang on the walls were works by Arthur Boyd, who set a record-breaking price of $1.6 million for one of his paintings at a Victorian auction 10 years ago.

Since then Collie has exhibited work by Sri Chin Roy, Claude Hotchin and Bill Harney. It is also home to the Collie Art Prize, a $50,000 prize that has become a must-enter and must-see feature on Australia’s arts calendar.

Gallery volunteer Emma Headley said the prize’s high calibre had encouraged the already thriving local art community.

Collie's WA Lace Guild group members Gwen Molnar and Pat Jones.
Camera IconCollie's WA Lace Guild group members Gwen Molnar and Pat Jones.

Clubs such as the Collie branch of the WA Lace Guild have been around for decades, boosted by events such as the town’s Festiv Arty festival, which not only celebrated art but encouraged local artists to show their work and host workshops.

“We’re finding a lot of new artists coming out of the woodwork who are producing great art,” Mrs Headley said.

“We encourage local artists to exhibit at the gallery as well, and they can sell their art here too.”

Rachael Williams at Chook Scraps, where many local artists get their supplies. The shop exhibited the works of local artists as part of the Festiv Arty celebrations.
Camera IconRachael Williams at Chook Scraps, where many local artists get their supplies. The shop exhibited the works of local artists as part of the Festiv Arty celebrations. Credit: Jacinta Cantatore

Mrs Headley was born and bred in Collie and has witnessed the town’s transformation from industrial centre to hidden art and adventure gem.

“People are realising it’s not just a dirty old mining town,” she said.

“Now they’re starting to come up the hill and see that we have something really special here.”

Whether it be at local cafes, the caravan park, or back at the tourist centre, Collie has welcomed the visitors who have come to see the wide array of events and activities on offer.

“If you come to Collie with your family who all have different interests, there is something here for everyone,” Ms Page said.

“A lot of the visitors coming down for one day are saying they’re going to have to come down for more days.”

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