New Zealand's motels and motor camps already have their "no vacancy" signs lit up, and summer is barely begun. Photo: Getty Images

Government agencies have booked out nearly all the country’s motels to accommodate homeless families, paroled prison inmates, and to manage the isolation of returning Kiwis.

You want somewhere to stay near the beach this summer? Buy a tent.

That’s the advice of Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts, who says most holiday accommodation outside the main cities will be full.

In towns like Porirua, almost every motel and hotel has been booked out by a government agency: the Ministry of Social Development providing homeless people a week or two or emergency accommodation; the Ministry of Housing providing transitional housing for months at a time; Corrections paroling prison inmates with nowhere to go; and of course Managed Isolation and Quarantine housing returning Kiwis.

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Outside the big cities, (one of the many Expedia subsidiaries) lists only two coastal motels with vacancies from Boxing Day to New Year: one in Kaikōura, one in Fiordland. There is just one room available at a campground: a bunkroom in Ōpōtiki.

Of course, beachside motels and holiday parks have always filled up from Boxing Day – but this year it’s worse than ever. Perversely, the border closures that have caused pain to tour operators and city hotels are having the opposite effect on small-town moteliers. Kiwis can’t go overseas for a summer holiday – so they’re booking holidays here.

Roberts said the golden weather for accommodation providers would last until Waitangi weekend in February; after that the bookings drop off completely. “It’s shaping up to be a busy domestic summer,” he said. “If you haven’t already booked somewhere to stay at a holiday destination, you’ll be quite likely out of luck now. You Mt Maunganui, your Raglan, your Cooks Beach and your Central Otago – they will be busier than ever. No one should be thinking that because the borders are closed they can be making a late booking.”

He is spending Christmas with his parents in Whakatane, and had been planning to drive home to Wellington afterwards. “I’m realising that I’ll have to stay with friends or relatives along the way, because there will not be anywhere available on the way down the island.”

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts, seen here on the Whanganui River, says he expects to have difficulty finding accommodation for his family this summer. Photo: Supplied

Roberts said the one place that there would be space available through January would be the hotels in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – or at least, those that aren’t turned over to Managed Isolation and Quarantine. “It’s probably a good time to visit Auckland – when all the Aucklanders have left.”

There are three factors that have combined to fill our motels and holiday parks: the first is the record number of Kiwis who will holiday here in New Zealand, this summer. The second factor is the Kiwis returning home from overseas; knocking out 7000 rooms in 32 hotels in Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch.

The third and most significant factor is the housing crisis. Social agencies are don’t have enough accommodation for the 20,000 families on the public housing waiting list. So the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development has commissioned 3,533 places in transitional housing – up 532 on a year earlier. Transitional housing is a mix of newly-built properties, re-purposed properties and properties leased from the private market – mostly motels. Occupants typically stay three months.

Then the Ministry of Social Development, too, is putting people in motels if they can’t find other accommodation, paid for with seven-day emergency grants. On average, people stay a month. MSD paid out $83m in emergency housing grants in the September quarter, to 9,823 clients or families. And because of the same accommodation crisis, the Department of Corrections is also leasing motels to house paroled prison inmates.

The last advertised room at a beachside holiday park, for the duration of the Boxing Day-to-New Year break, is a bunkroom at the Island View Holiday Park in Opotiki. Photo: Supplied

The homelessness crisis was temporarily swept out of sight during the Covid lockdowns and, conveniently, the election campaign. It is now re-emerging ahead of Christmas. Newsroom has revealed that government agencies are also discreetly buying up motels, like the Spinnaker Motel in Porirua, though Housing Minister Dr Megan Woods refused to answer questions about the practice in Parliament this month.

Now, there are towns like Porirua where government agencies have bought or leased nearly all the accommodation. Kun Liu is duty manager at the 20-room Belmont Motor Lodge overlooking the Mungavin Interchange and central Porirua; she is forced to start turning away prospective guests early each afternoon. “At the end of the day, we are mostly fully booked.”

She refers them to other motels like the Bucket Tree Lodge, in the suburb of Tawa in neighbouring Wellington. That’s because there’s nothing else left in Porirua: it’s all full with homeless families or paroled prisoners.

Porirua mayor Anita Baker said the Belmont Motel was the only accommodation left in the entire city. The Spinnaker had been bought by government; and five other hotels and motels were entirely leased by MSD, HUD or Corrections. 

Baker said this was frustrating, because the city had been trying to rebuild its brand as an attractive destination for visitors. It has major events at Te Rauparaha Arena, like a big upcoming boxing night, or the annual Waitangi Day festival. But visitors are forced to find accommodation in Wellington, 20km down state highway 1. “I want people to be able to come here and stay here, but I also want locals to have somewhere to live. Living a long time in a motel room with family members is not healthy.”

Kāinga Ora opened 29 new one- and two-bedroom homes in Cannons Creek this week – but she said it was tracking a long way round the 200 new houses a week that the Prime Minister had promised. 

There are fewer and fewer motels left that don’t book out most of their rooms to the Ministry of Social Development or Ministry of Housing. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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