After two years of doing it tough, West Coast tourism operators are cautiously optimistic that the dark Covid clouds are wafting away
Westland Mayor Bruce Smith says spirits are lifting in the tourist town of Franz Josef with the opening of the border to Australian visitors.
The loss of international tourism all but crippled the town in 2019, when the border was closed to keep out Covid-19, with the resulting overnight cancellation of thousands of bookings with Glacier Country businesses.
Hotels, motels, cafes and bars scaled down or went into hibernation, with a loss of 500 jobs.
Covid tourism emergency funding from the Government kept some afloat.
But more than 200 people left the small community, putting a serious dent in voluntary services including search and rescue, Civil Defence and the local fire brigade.
The mayor says hope is now returning to Franz with the gradual easing of Covid restrictions.
“Letting the Aussies back in will help and so will switching to orange in the traffic light system – the red was just making people nervous.”
The recovery will be slow, the mayor warns.
“There’s a lot of work involved in re-opening. You have to find staff, for a start, then build up again gradually.”
It seems doubtful that Franz Josef will return any time soon – if ever – to pre-Covid boom times, when the streets were lined with camper vans and buses, backpackers thronged the bars and the air was loud with the buzz of helicopters ferrying Chinese visitors to the glaciers.
But visitor interest is picking up, Smith says.
“Talking to the likes of the bike-tour people, their bookings are looking good again and I’m confident we’ve come through the worst of it and we’re on the way up.”
At the town’s Landing restaurant, manager Anshul Dogra is hoping Smith is right.
“We were reasonably busy last Easter with Kiwi visitors, then it all died down. So it’s what happens in the weeks after this Easter that’ll tell us what’s coming.”
The Landing’s owners closed two other businesses, the King Tiger restaurant and Full of Beans cafe, and laid off about 40 staff after the first lockdown to survive the Covid storm.
“They’ve gone and found jobs elsewhere and it’ll be hard to find new staff until the backpackers start coming through again,” Dogra says.
The return of the transtasman trade could be a godsend for the business and the remaining 18 staff.
“We do get large numbers of Australians through all year round normally so we’re just hoping they’re busting to get out for the holidays,” Dogra says.
Across State Highway 6 at the Alpine Adventure Centre, staff also have their fingers crossed.
Two years ago, HeliServices employed 40 people to meet tourist demand for alpine and glacier flights.
These days, the company is down to eight staff and manager Quentin Arnold says the tricky bit will be scaling up again.
“We don’t know what demand is going to be and don’t want to be heavily staffed at the moment. We’ve done it pretty hard.”
Nurtured by nature
Some staff working reduced hours have been able to make ends meet and wait out the Covid crisis by working on the Department of Conservation’s Jobs for Nature programme, he says.
“That’s been fantastic for the town. It means we’ve been able to keep skilled people around so we can handle what may be coming.”
No one expects Franz and Fox Glacier to suddenly boom with tourists, but there is cause – at last – for cautious hope, Arnold says.
“We think it’ll be a slow climb back with and another tough six months until the summer season. But we’re starting to see bookings coming in for 2023.”
After a long spell of being cooped up, Australians who fly to Queenstown for ski trips might be tempted to extend their stay and visit the coast as well, Arnold says.
And the country’s record in managing the pandemic should be reassuring for international travellers, he thinks.
“New Zealand has handled Covid better than most countries and I think we’re seen as a reasonably safe destination in these times.
“But the big thing is can we now handle what’s coming? We don’t want to be understaffed and have them going home saying it’s a shambles.”
Around the corner at the West Coast Wildlife Centre, two tiny rowi chicks – hatched onsite – scuttle up and down their dark enclosure intent on missions mysterious to a human observer.
The rare little kiwi found only in South Westland are easily spooked and visitors are sternly warned not to make noise or take photos.
At present, that’s not a problem. The viewing benches once lined by visitors are vacant.
But give it a few months, Smith predicts, and they’ll be back.
Not as many, maybe, but enough to revive the fortunes of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier to the south.
And enough to restore the livelihoods of people who spent their savings and mortgaged their homes to keep their towns alive.
They’ve toughed it out for two years and salvation, says the Westland mayor, can’t come soon enough.
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund