Taronga Western Plains Zoo has won bronze at the 2022 Australian Tourism Awards, in a new cause for celebration as it bounces back from COVID lockdowns.
The Dubbo organisation claimed a top-three spot in the major tourist attraction category, which zoo boss Steve Hinks said was a result that was "incredibly hard to come by".
Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria took out gold in the category and silver went to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary.
Mr Hinks attended the awards ceremony held at Queensland's Sunshine Coast on Friday night, accepting the bronze award on behalf of the team, which came after success at the state awards last month.
"To be named as one of the top three best major attractions in the country is a wonderful achievement for Taronga Western Plains Zoo and for tourism in regional NSW," he said.
The Dubbo attraction's Zoofari Lodge has a strong history of success in the unique accommodation sections at both the state and national level.
Winning an award in the major tourist attraction category was much rarer.
"I believe we may have taken that out in the mid-1990s, a very, very long time ago," Mr Hinks said.
"This is an award which is incredibly hard to come by, major tourist attraction is the big gong at the tourism awards.
This is an award which is incredibly hard to come by, major tourist attraction is the big gong at the tourism awards.- Zoo director Steve Hinks
"Tourist attractions are the reason why people travel, and so to be recognised at that level is incredibly important."
The zoo boss who began in the role in 2017 attributed the win to the contribution of the many.
"I really want to thank our extremely hard-working team, dedicated volunteers and supporters, all of our amazing guests who have visited and stayed onsite with us and of course our beautiful animals that are inspirational ambassadors for conservation every single day," Mr Hinks said.
"We have had so many challenges in recent years, like so many of our tourism industry colleagues, so receiving the bronze award is a real testament to our team and their resilience and dedication throughout drought, bushfires, a mouse plague and a pandemic."
The zoo enjoyed a tourism boom when NSW came out of its first COVID lockdown in mid-2020.
It had the best visitation for a financial year on record to June 30, 2021, Mr Hinks said.
The Delta outbreak and resulting lockdowns had affected the zoo for much of the second-half of last year, but recovery was coming, Mr Hinks said.
"We reopened on October 18, and we've actually seen really strong visitation once again since reopening," he said.
"So December and January, that school holiday period over Christmas was not quite as strong as the previous year but it was our second-best Christmas holiday performance.
"We really did see that there was a lot of demand still for regional holidays.
"February was a record-breaking month for visitor numbers here to the zoo.
"So we're certainly still at the forefront of tourism in terms of a popular place to visit because we're seen as safe, we have that space, we're outdoors, and we're certainly a location that the industry and all of our guests are still very keen to come and visit."
The zoo was part of a strong showing for the region at the awards, run by Australian Tourism Awards Inc on behalf of the industry.
Five Western NSW businesses were recognised for their outstanding contribution to the state's visitor economy.
Heifer Station Wines at Orange won silver in the tourism, wineries and distilleries category and Sierra Escape Mudgee won silver in unique accommodation.
Byng Street Hotel received a bronze for deluxe 4.5-star accommodation and Mudgee Region Tourism received bronze for tourism marketing and campaigns.
"This is great recognition for these businesses, and they should be incredibly proud of their achievements" Business NSW Western NSW regional manager Vicki Seccombe said.
"Out of the eight winners from NSW, five of those were from western NSW, highlighting the strength and importance of the visitor economy within the region."