PORT Arthur grows quiet in the evening as tourists leave.
It’s Maria Stacey’s favourite time of day.
The veteran Port Arthur Historic Site employee, who has lived on the Tasman Peninsula her whole life, likes to walk through the grounds at dawn and sunset.
“If the sun’s coming up and lighting the front of the Penitentiary, it’s very blinding, very bright,” Ms Stacey said.
As she speaks at the visitors centre late in the afternoon, tables at its cafe stand empty for a few minutes.
Surrounded by the site’s green lawns and lush gardens, she tends to reflect.
Port Arthur stirs emotions in her.
“It’s the beauty, and the tragedy of this place as well. It’s a very thought-provoking experience.”
Visitors often express the same reaction.
“So many people I speak to when they first visit are just blown away by how they feel.”
The grounds were busy with visitors earlier in the day. Its Separate Prison, packed with students on excursion, offered little room to move.
Bilingual signs on site tell of the influx of Chinese tourists driving record tourism numbers, which reached 58,000 in January. On Christmas Day, 800 visitors came.
Visitors arrive in town to begin the newly-opened and acclaimed Three Capes track, and finish the adventure back in Port Arthur.
Tourists walk tracks nearby at Remarkable Cave, Devil’s Kitchen and Tasman Arch.
It wasn’t so busy at Port Arthur in the years following the massacre.
Ms Stacey was away when her then-husband, at the site, called and said a mass shooting had happened.
She returned immediately and saw its aftermath.
After the massacre, Ms Stacey struggled to focus. But she was driven by a thought.
“I’m not going to let anybody take anything else from me.”
She remembers a community struggling to move forward.
Some residents spoke of razing the area, but she believed this would have been a defeat.
“If we allowed that to happen, it would be more than the 35 lives that would have been lost,” Ms Stacey said.
“It would’ve been ridiculous to do that.”
The site’s ghost tours came into question, but Ms Stacey believed they should remain.
After she reviewed the tour’s script with colleagues they found nothing that would be inappropriate.
In secret she agreed to lead one for visiting travel agents.
“I proved to myself it was okay to do the ghost tour,” Ms Stacey said.
Work was hard-going for site employees.
A manager who appeared to be coping didn’t turn up one day, and never returned.
“I found that really, really hard,” Ms Stacey said.
Today employees remain who had to clean up or who lost people close to them after gunman Martin Bryant fired on tourists and staff there. Often they’re confronted with tourists asking about the massacre. Printed site guides don’t mention it.
But the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority is planning on releasing new guides to the site referring to the shootings.
“Personally I think the time is right,” Ms Stacey said.
“As custodians of history I think we have an obligation to enable people to have an opportunity to know a bit more about it when they’re here.”
Many peninsula residents don’t say Bryant’s name. Food business operator Bev Millhouse, who works near the Blow Hole, said the area was focused on other things now.
Tourists were arriving at the rate of knots. She counted 14 cars stopping at the Blow Hole before 10am, and was looking forward to more tourism growth.
“The mind boggles as to what is going to happen.”
The memorial garden is the historic site’s most visible tribute to the victims of the shootings.
Tasman mayor Roseanne Heyward will lay a wreath at its cross on April 28, when Australia will mark 20 years since the massacre.
Cr Heyward doesn’t know how many people will come.
Port Arthur had to continue as an historic site following the shootings, she said.
The Howard government gave funding to build a visitors centre, which opened in 1998.
When Port Arthur gained consistent state government funding from 2000 it was able to plan better and hire the right staff for its conservation projects. The site’s fortunes lifted.
Its profile grew with World Heritage listing in 2010.
Last week Federal Group announced it would proceed with a $25 million luxury resort at Port Arthur to become a sister property for Saffire on the East Coast.
The Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, now employing 190 people in peak season, had grown more professional since 1996, Ms Stacey said.
She still can’t believe the massacre happened.
“Who could ever make sense of it, really?”
After the 10 year anniversary commemorations, Mr Large said another would not be held.
But people that the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority approached about a 20th anniversary commemoration said they wanted an event marking the occasion.
At the visitors centre’s cafe, tables fill up around Ms Stacey with students visiting on excursion, eating pizza and chips.
Amid the noise she says the 20 year anniversary will feel different to the 10 year event. She will help make sandwiches and make sure the event runs smoothly.
Ms Stacey is looking forward to seeing people who haven’t returned to Port Arthur for a long time.
Her feelings have changed since the massacre.
“It’s sad. How else can you describe it?
“For me a lot of the anger has gone. But it’s just that sadness, you know.
“Why did it have to happen?”
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