1 June 2022

Staff wanted: Fiordland gears up for tourism boom

In the hallway of a Bed & Breakfast in Te Anau is a map of the globe, punctuated by hundreds of differently coloured pins.

Each year co-owner Nathan Benfell used to empty the map ready for the next tourists to record where they hailed from.

Covid-19 halted international tourists in 2020 and that had a devastating impact on Fiordland businesses.

The current pins were left in place since then, as a reminder to Benfell that one day international tourists would eventually come back.

This month he was excited to take down the pins and start afresh in what he hopes might be a bumper year of international tourists coming back to revive Fiordland.

“It’s been a reminder through the past two years that people do travel … we’ve had two years of not knowing, we get to look forward now.”

Te Anau, known as the gateway to Milford Sound, has experienced a roller-coaster of a decade.

Visitor numbers roughly doubled in the six years between 2013 and 2019, with about 870,000 people visiting Milford Sound in 2019.

Prior to the pandemic, this number was tipped to reach more than a million in the 2019/20 season.

It is estimated about 80% of those visitors were international tourists.

After the Covid-19 pandemic hit, tourism spending dropped 49% to $43 million in Fiordland in the year to January 2021, with some tourism operators describing an 85 to 90% drop in revenue compared to what they would usually see over the summer.

Business owners pivoted industries, with some taking up contract work in other professions, whilst others expanded their offerings. Many backpackers, which historically took up seasonal work in the town, left the country.

However, as lockdowns eased and Kiwi’s began exploring their own backyard, Fiordland saw domestic tourism spending increase 51% to $36m in the year to 2021.

For Fiordland Historic Cruises skipper Adam Butler, it was these domestic tourists that guided Te Anau through the pandemic to where they are today, emerging from two years of hibernation to embrace international arrivals once more.

Sitting aboard the sailing boat Faith, on a still and sunny day in Fiordland where Mount Luxmore is reflected almost exactly onto Lake Te Anau, Butler appeared elated in discussing the arrival of several international tourists since the borders opened to visa-waiver countries in April.

In the past week they had hosted a couple from Paris who had specifically been trying to visit New Zealand for years, whilst a duo from America had flown over five hours after the border opened.

“And it’s the third week of May, it’s exceptional to have people at the end of May,” he grinned.

Where usually they would close over June, July and August for a break, Butler planned to remain open for any tourists that may visit Fiordland in its winter off-season.

It’s a similar tale for Sandfly Cafe co-owner Carolyn Fox, who has noticed a small amount of international visitors come through her doors.

“I have noticed a group of Americans in the other day, and we’ve had some Australians and some people from India,” she said.

“It varies day to day, which probably makes it a little hard on staffing … one day you’re quiet, but the next you could have a major rush.”

She thought there would continue being a “trickle” of international tourists throughout winter, but was “very optimistic” there would be an influx from September.

However, Fiordland Jets co-owner Chris Adams was hesitant that this “trickle” would not be enough to replace the domestic tourists that have boarded flights overseas away from New Zealand after two years of being cooped up.

Sitting atop one of the bright yellow jet boats used to cruise down the Waiau River to Lake Manapouri, Adams was straight-up about the current state of New Zealand’s tourism industry.

“Since the borders opened we’ve had less Kiwi’s, our numbers are actually down compared to this time last year … we’ve had international interest, but that doesn’t start until September,” he said.

He pointed to New Zealand’s unemployment rate, currently at an all-time low, and worried that a lack of workers could impact the country’s reputation as a “world-class” tourism destination.

“It’s going to be a rough three months before it gets better,” he sighed.

“One of our biggest problems is staffing, we want to employ more jet boat operators, but they need to have a commercial boat licence … everywhere is short, everywhere is screaming out for staff … [my concern is] is New Zealand going to be able to offer our tourists the experience they deserve?”

Because of its specialised nature, Adams’ business was not reliant on backpackers pre-Covid-19 like others in the area, but he was still struggling to find employees.

“Before we had Kiwis, we just had people turn up … I don’t know what’s happened,” he said.

It’s a problem Red Tussock Motel manager Robin Campbell believed to be universal for Te Anau businesses.

He had heard rumours of coach tours into Te Anau restarting, which historically had taken advantage of the motel because of its 20 unit size.

“I think we’ll have a busy season … I have forward bookings for September and October, the only worry I’ve got is staff.”

He estimated he would need three, but possibly up to four, cleaners before August, when he was fully booked out for a weekend due to an adventure run in the area.

Usually, the motel relied on backpackers that were looking to stay in the area for about five or six months.

“When the overseas guests come, we’re going to need them … it’s good to have the next two to three months to prepare,” he said.

“That is going to be the big issue for everyone in Te Anau.”

Shakespeare House B&B co-owner and Fiordland Business Association chairman Nathan Benfell is hunting for staff now for what he expected to be a post-Covid-19 tourist boom.

A tourism company he liaised with had told him they were expecting their biggest year to date, with a 50% spike in bookings from overseas.

“These people are paid out and ready to go, they’re confirmed.”

He’d been contacted by media companies in Australia and Europe following the border opening, with one German magazine publishing content encouraging travellers to come to New Zealand “before it’s too busy”.

He was confident backpackers would return to New Zealand to fill a void in workers, highlighting that a rise in New Zealand’s minimum wage to $21.20 an hour in April would be a draw-card for young people.

What was concerning was if they would arrive in time for the “boom”, with Benfell pointing to the horticulture industry where a tenth of apples remained unpicked this year due to a lack of seasonal workers.

“That’s millions to billions in lost export earnings … so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed.”

A vocal campaigner for the re-opening of New Zealand’s borders, Benfell wasn’t letting staffing issues distract him from looking forward.

He, alongside other members of the Fiordland Business Association, were already well underway in planning and co-ordinating events to further attract people to the region in the 2022/23 season.

“It’s super-exciting, I’m super excited.”

He gestured to the map of the globe full of pinpoints and smiled.

“We might have to start pulling some of those down again, make some room.”

Source: stuff.co.nz – 31 May 2022

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