How Kaiko¯ura survived without tourists
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.’’
Lazy Shag Backpackers owner Dave Stanford: ‘‘[The earthquake has] given you some time to reflect on your life.’’
Kaiko¯ura Kayaks has seen a big uptick in bookings for this summer.