How Kaiko¯ura sur­vived with­out tourists

Kaikoura Star - - YOUR LOCAL NEWS - MICHAEL WRIGHT

Dave Stan­ford does dour like a pro. His de­fault set­ting is world­weary cyn­i­cism and he rarely wa­vers from it. If he does, it’s only the words, not the de­meanour, that change.

So it’s oddly amus­ing to see him lean back on a pic­nic ta­ble, stony-faced, and say, with­out a trace of joy, ‘‘I’ve lifted my spir­its con­sid­er­ably.’’

Stan­ford man­ages the Lazy Shag Back­pack­ers, on the main road north out of Kaiko¯ura. Like ev­ery tourist op­er­a­tor in town, his busi­ness went into freefall af­ter the mag­ni­tude-7.8 earth­quake on Novem­ber 14 last year.

The only tourists left were those trapped by the blocked roads. State High­way 1 to the north was pum­melled by land­slides and has stayed closed. It is due to re­open next month, but will re­main an ac­tive con­struc­tion site for some time. SH1 south is par­tially open but with­out a fully-func­tion­ing high­way, the tourists have stayed away. Vis­i­tor rates in 2017 are about half of the year be­fore.

‘‘Fi­nan­cially it’s a dis­as­ter but so­cially it’s a step in the right di­rec­tion,’’ Stan­ford says.

‘‘[That’s] the one thing about this earth­quake that’s been bloody bril­liant, it’s given you some time to re­flect on your life.’’

For Stan­ford, that meant clos­ing both the Lazy Shag and an­other hos­tel he owns for the first time ever and head­ing to the north of In­dia for a motorcycling trip over the Pak­istan bor­der.

A bit of a change from mak­ing sure the kitchen was clean by 11.15am ev­ery day be­fore the Kiwi Ex­pe­ri­ence bus ar­rived. Big bus tours – Kiwi Ex­pe­ri­ence, Stray Travel – was his stock in trade.

They need SH1 re­li­ably open be­fore they will re­turn. ‘‘They can’t drop all their beds in Nelson and then say there’s been two days of rain in Kaiko¯ura, the roads are closed,’’ Stan­ford says.

‘‘Un­til they can ac­tu­ally open the road con­stantly we’re in the same po­si­tion.’’ So it is with ev­ery tourist op­er­a­tor. Many of them re­port 2017 busi­ness at a small frac­tion of pre­vi­ous years. Kaiko¯ura is most renowned for its marine life, par­tic­u­larly whales, but when the seabed lifted dur­ing the earth­quake – up to two me­tres in places – the busi­nesses built around it ground to a halt.

Un­less op­er­a­tors found an­other way to launch their boats, or waited for the har­bour to be dredged, which took months, they were go­ing nowhere. En­counter Kaiko¯ura, which runs dol­phin and al­ba­tross-view­ing tours, took about three months to re­sume nor­mal ser­vice.

‘‘Our boats were all trail­ered,’’ busi­ness man­ager Lynette Bu­ur­man said, ‘‘So as soon as they could say that the chan­nel was dredged and safe to use at all tides we were pretty much back to nor­mal.’’

By Fe­bru­ary, the com­pany had re­cov­ered to about 60 per cent of turnover, Bu­ur­man says, in no small part to lo­cal pa­tron­age.

‘‘We got an enor­mous amount of sup­port from Christchurch. There was this em­pa­thy from Cantabri­ans, they could feel for us. Sup­port our neigh­bours, that was pretty spe­cial . . . but that’s not sus­tain­able over the longer term, so the win­ter has been ter­ri­ble be­cause of the road clo­sure. The un­cer­tainty of the ac­cess doesn’t work at all with tourists who are try­ing to plan an itin­er­ary.’’

Trade dipped to about 30 per cent of usual over the colder months, Bu­ur­man says, but things are look­ing up. On Tues­day, the first an­niver­sary of the earth­quake, Kaiko¯ura’s re­vamped ma­rina, ser­vic­ing the freshly-dredged har­bour, will re­open.

‘‘I’m look­ing for­ward to De­cem­ber,’’ Bu­ur­man says, ‘‘I’m look­ing for­ward to this year be­ing over and we can look back and say we made it.’’

Most of Kaiko¯ura’s tourism in­dus­try, about 90 per cent, is still trad­ing and has been since Fe­bru­ary, when the worst of it was over. ‘‘Christ­mas was re­ally bad,’’ Des­ti­na­tion Kaiko¯ura gen­eral man­ager Glenn Ormsby said.

‘‘The ac­tual Christ­mas pe­riod we were down 60 to 70 per cent. It was huge. We’re start­ing to claw a bit of that back but we’re still nowhere near what we should be.’’

In the year to Septem­ber 2016, vis­i­tors to Kaiko¯ura spent an es­ti­mated $125 mil­lion. In the 12 months since, they spent around $63m, al­most a 50 per cent drop. Over­seas tourists ac­counted for slightly more of the de­crease. Ormsby says pro­mo­tion heav­ily favoured the do­mes­tic mar­ket this year, with a size­able in­crease in Christchurch vis­i­tors, at the ex­pense of at­tract­ing for­eign­ers.

‘‘Un­til this road opens north we’re go­ing to be be­hind the eight­ball on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. There’s less in­ter­na­tional flow this way [south] be­cause they’re hav­ing an ex­tra seven hours now. Through the West Coast and Nelson they’re do­ing pretty good whereas be­fore they’d come straight down here and then through [Lake] Tekapo.’’

That mar­ket won’t prop­erly re­cover un­til SH1 is open and itin­er­ar­ies can be planned. Ormsby at­tended a re­cent Tourism New Zealand road­show in Lon­don where Euro­pean agents were ea­ger to hear about progress.

‘‘They want to know when Kaiko¯ura’s go­ing to be open again. They’re keen to get back here.’’

Some of them al­ready are. Swiss tourists Fabian Oeler and Dana Good spent nearly a month in New Zealand over Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber. They went to Kaiko¯ura specif­i­cally for the whales. No-one told them there had been an earth­quake. They picked up a camper­van in Christchurch and fol­lowed the road signs to Kaiko¯ura, think­ing it would take just over two hours.

‘‘Af­ter an hour there was a sign say­ing we have to take route 7 [the state high­way to the In­land Rd] to Kaiko¯ura,’’ Oeler says, ‘‘[That took] about four hours.’’

‘‘We had to drive the moun­tain. You have to be very care­ful. You can’t drive very quick. It was OK, but a high­way is bet­ter.’’

Oeler and Good are the kind of tourists who have kept Kaiko¯ura go­ing. In­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors favour itin­er­ar­ies and long-term cer­tainty.

A year ago, Kaiko¯ura Kayaks owner Matt Foy’s days grew de­press­ingly repet­i­tive. ‘‘For the first two months all we were get­ting was peo­ple can­celling on us and watch­ing the bank bal­ance go from that [he holds a flat hand out above his head] down to that [he holds it much lower]. For the first cou­ple of months it was just re­fund­ing money and can­celling book­ings. We went to work ev­ery day to sit in front of the com­puter and ex­plain the sit­u­a­tion. Pretty de­mor­al­is­ing re­ally.’’

Now those days are be­hind him. No more win­ters trad­ing at a third of usual busi­ness. The fu­ture, hope­fully, is bright.

‘‘We have no­ticed in the last cou­ple of months a big in­crease in book­ings,’’ Foy says.

‘‘Travel whole­salers are in con­tact with us again . . . we’re look­ing for­ward to sum­mer.’’

PHOTO: MICHAEL WRIGHT/ STUFF

Lazy Shag Back­pack­ers owner Dave Stan­ford: ‘‘[The earth­quake has] given you some time to re­flect on your life.’’

PHOTO: IAIN MCGRE­GOR/STUFF

Kaiko¯ura Kayaks has seen a big uptick in book­ings for this sum­mer.

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