A famously animal-shaped building in rural Waikato is up for lease – just like the hopes of the tourism sector in general

It’s one of the most iconic pieces of architectural kitsch lining the highways and byways of rural New Zealand – the giant corrugated iron ewe in the small Waikato hamlet of Tirau.

The ewe and its equally quintessential companions, a dog and a ram, have greeted travellers since the 90s and become a common stopping point for tourists en route to the more in-demand sight-seeing locales of Rotorua and Taupo.

But despite its fame, the ewe is a sheep without a shepherd. For the second time in as many years, it’s been listed online in search of a new leaseholder, following the departure of woolcraft store The Merino Story in late 2021.

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The tourist shop was another casualty of the immediate halt pandemic-related border closures put on the tourism industry, as a steady flow of overseas tourists trickled down to nothing almost overnight.

But with overseas tourism beginning to tick back up and the new Hamilton expressway dropping new streams of traffic directly onto the main street of Tirau, it could be a fresh start for whomever elects to set up shop within the ovine edifice.

The mimetic architecture of Tirau has always been a symbol of the unabashed nostalgic celebration of rural life and willingness to embrace large-scale kitsch, up there with Dargaville’s giant kumara, the Kiwiana murals of Otorohanga, or Cromwell’s cyclopean fruit bowl.

Perhaps it’s a tradition that can be directly traced down to New Zealand’s current appetite for big weird structures – think the mega-sculptures of Gibbs Farm or the giant boy walking through Auckland’s Potters Park designed by artist Ronnie van Hout.

Then there’s Wellington’s polarising face-hand, also created by van Hout, dwelling both on the roof of the capital’s City Gallery and in the depths of uncanny valley.

Now the livestock row in Tirau can stand as a symbol for another nationwide trend and show us what the rebrand of a return to a thriving tourism industry looks like, South Waikato-style.

The original iron menagerie of Tirau. Photo: Jonathan Milne

Statistics New Zealand data shows an average of 324,039 monthly overseas visitor arrivals in 2019, which dropped to just 1721 in April of 2020.

And with about 0.5 percent of the usual trade from overseas, businesses like The Merino Story found themselves downsizing, and their Tirau location was first for the shears.

But with borders reopening in the first half of last year and visitor numbers back on the rise, there’s a chance for a new set of tenants to make their mark on the town.

With an asking price of $55,000 for use of the 283 square metre ground floor and mezzanine, real estate agent Ryan Bradley suggests to potential tenants that it’s got the bones of a cafe cum retail outlet.

“With the new Waikato Expressway landing Tirau as the first town on State Highway One south of Auckland, this is an opportunity that Ewe can’t go past! Baaaaaa [sic]”, reads the listing.

Indeed it’s a big moment for Tirau. The 100-kilometre long Waikato expressway means Aucklanders making a break for the south bypass every town before being spat out in Tirau.

Tirau’s corrugated menagerie were the brainchildren of former schoolteachers John and Nancy Drake, who were searching for a way to catch the eye of passing motorists and entice them into their wool shop.

One sheep grew to two, along with a dog to guard them, which is under lease by the local council and runs as an iSite and a public toilet.

But the whole town eventually followed, with corrugated iron sculptures popping up like metallic weeds. But rather than a scourge to be pulled from the garden, these weeds gave Tirau a quirk that has put it on the map.

Nowadays a tall corrugated iron Jesus stands by the sheepdog, looking like a giant hitch-hiker in outdated garb, while the dairy down the road has a sign made from the distinctive material. Elsewhere in town are giant corrugated poppies, reindeer, and a pūkeko wearing a pearl necklace.

But what does it mean for a town that has given itself over to these attention-grabbing idiosyncrasies when there are no international visitors to stop and gawk?

Do the lights of Kaiwaka shine so brightly in the night without anybody new to see them? And what good does the ewe do for Tirau when its sole use in the past year has been as a storage shed?

They are questions that were only temporarily relevant during the throes of the early pandemic, and as the hordes return it’s likely that a mention in the Lonely Planet will once again be a shot in the arm for the economy of small-town tourist meccas like Tirau.

But with concerns around climate change and a world where one can never predict exactly what is waiting around the corner, just how much faith can the tourism industry put in a stable stream of revenue going forward far into the future?

According to figures from Tourism Industry Aotearoa, tourism contributed $16.4 billion or 5.5 percent directly to New Zealand’s total GDP per annum, and an indirect contribution of $11.3 billion or 3.8 percent could be put down on top of that.

In the year to March 2022, the sector generated a direct contribution to GDP of $10 billion, or 3 percent of GDP. It’s an increase of 1.3 percent or $132 million on the year before, but remains beneath those pre-pandemic levels.

With borders fully open only during last year, new figures are likely to show recovery in the industry. However, how optimistic this leaves tourism operators who have had a hugely difficult past few years remains to be seen, and perhaps will be evident by just how quickly Tirau’s ewe is able to find new occupants.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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