Some businesses in the region's holiday hotspots are experiencing a sharp increase in bookings with one operator expecting Port Stephens to become the state's "busiest regional tourist destination" in coming weeks as leisure travel resumes.
Sydneysiders and those from surrounding areas are banned from visiting the Hunter for holidays until 80 per cent of the state's population is vaccinated, but with some certainty about reopening from Monday inquiries to accommodation providers and activity operators ramped up this week.
Veteran Port Stephens tour operator Frank Future said his Imagine Cruises business had seen a "trickle" of bookings before the state reached 70 per cent earlier this week, but the phones "really started to go" for the first time on Thursday.
"Our booking system, I think, over the next few days will pick up dramatically as people start to feel a bit secure," he said. "Accommodation is starting to get absolutely pelted and people want to book their accommodation first before they book their activities. That's the litmus test for us when accommodation starts to go.
"I think Port Stephens will become the busiest regional tourist destination because there will be day-trippers [from Sydney]. I think it's going to go absolutely nuts."
With travel only between regional areas allowed from Monday, occupancy rates in Port Stephens and the Hunter Valley over the next fortnight have been described as "good" and "steady" with rooms still available. However in an indication of how quickly things can change, Lake Macquarie council reactivated online bookings for its caravan parks on Thursday and more than 350 nights were booked by about 50 customers in three hours.
Lake Mac Holiday Parks coordinator Garry Ellem said all four parks at Swansea, Blacksmiths, Redhead and Wangi Wangi had been "absolutely inundated" with enquiries in recent days.
"Weekend bookings are already strong through to the end of the year," he said. "Mid-week stays are slightly lower than normal ... likely due to some people holding off on longer family holidays until they can be sure of what is happening with lockdowns easing," he said.
Destination Port Stephens CEO Eileen Gilliland said the tourism body was yet to conduct a regional occupancy survey but anecdotally bookings were rolling in. She expects them to increase as Hunter residents take spur-of-the-moment trips.
"Bookings are coming in very strong through November into December and January," she said. "It's looking like we're going to bounce back over that summer holiday season. It's a great time before it gets busy for people to take a break in their own backyard before it gets too busy. Get out and support local businesses. Whether you shop, going have lunch somewhere, visit an attraction or jump on a boat tour. Have a staycation."
In the Hunter Valley, Pokolbin was this week revealed to be the state's most searched destination on online booking website Wotif.
Hunter Valley Wine Country CEO Amy Cooper said topping the trending list was a positive sign but accommodation in the district was already "booking up very strongly" during December and over the Christmas-New Year holiday period.
"We are starting to see some bookings for November and late October but there still seems to be some people needing that level of reassurance that things are going to reopen and restrictions aren't going to change too much," she said.
"We're really hoping that people who live in the Hunter and regional NSW take the advantage of being released from lockdown and stretch their legs. A lot of our businesses are really keen to get back open and support locals enjoy the valley.
"But we do know it's, no doubt, going to be very busy once Sydney reopens. And industry is very keen for it after being locked down for so long, that has been tough."
Alloggio managing director Will Creedon said the region's leisure destinations were about to enter "the most amazing purple-patch" ever experienced. However, he warned it would only be leisure-based businesses which experience a windfall.
"It's not going to be for everybody," he said. "Certain types of businesses in the visitor economy are still going to suffer for a long time ... especially event management and the creative industries."
Lake Macquarie council tourism coordinator Bianca Gilmore believes there could be an "extraordinary" number of family holidays taken in "first six months of 2022" and the council is planning a marketing campaign based on experiencing "Lake Mac to the max", promoting people swapping "screen time for real-life thrills".
"The campaign will promote adventure experiences in Lake Macquarie, focusing on reconnecting with the great outdoors and nature."