Lincoln University Tourism Professor David Simmons shares his thoughts on the future of tourism in Kaikoura following the recent earthquake.
Reports of Kaikoura's community and tourism sector are alarmist and unhelpful.
The first phase of Kaikoura's response to their devastating earthquakes of a week ago is drawing to a close. From all accounts, these have shown the remarkable support within and beyond the Kaikoura and district community as visitors and those with immediate needs have been moved out of the area.
Recovery is the next task. And there is no doubt that this will be long and difficult. In the past three decades, tourism has emerged as the life blood of the town, with over 30 per cent of people in the town reported as visitors at the time of the event. The recommencement of tourist flows and their attendant expenditure is a necessary step to economic recovery, employment, and further steps in community wellbeing.
The first stage in recovery will be the opening of the life-line road across Highway 70 from Waiau (at one time called the whale's back road) to its junction with State Highway 7 just north of Culverden.
There are already indications that this road could be open, presumably for essential traffic in the first instance, by mid this week.
With continuous improvement and good management, this road will subsequently be available to tourists. Drawing on previous work on mapping and modelling tourist flows and activities, it is possible to map and model various stages in the recovery.
This would allow for coordinated communications with visitors and rescheduling of tourist and support activities both in the town and along the access route.
By way of comparison, Milford Sound provides a useful starting point. The road from Te Anau is 120km and traverses some very difficult country.
The SH 70 route (inland road) while windy is approximately 100km. Day trips, and overnight for some as accommodation becomes confirmed as available, are a distinct possibility. Correspondingly, a day trip from Queenstown to Milford is a whopping 580km – 140km short of a similar one-way trip from Christchurch to Kaikoura. For the more adventurous, a Molesworth circuit could also be examined.
Looking further into the future, the northern section of SH1 will reopen, while the fate of the southern section appears to take longer to resolve.
Milford and Kaikoura both stand as tourist destinations because of their outstanding natural attributes. While in the first scenario, above visitation might be concentrated across the middle of the day, knowledge of estimated travel times and volumes would allow activities to be rescheduled and offer the community a significant ray of hope.
We have learnt from the Christchurch earthquakes that a different form of tourism emerges after a natural disaster. Our experiences are that travellers are overwhelmingly compassionate, genuinely interested in the human and physical stories – and importantly, willing to spend a little time and money to support a recovering community.
In the bigger picture, the current earthquake reminds us again to pay greater attention to the tourism sector. As New Zealand's largest single export earner (20.7 per cent foreign exchange) and contributing 5.6 per cent directly to GDP, it remains remarkably understudied and some might argue its management under-resourced.
Some context of the size of the sector's growth is warranted here. International tourists to New Zealand double every 12 to 14 years – and have done so since the arrival of jet-powered aircraft in 1959.
Sufficient attention to the continued growth in tourism in New Zealand has not been forthcoming. This year, issues such as managing freedom camping, public infrastructure and the conservation estate have been in the news almost weekly.
It is useful to step back and put this growth in context. Twenty years ago, New Zealand attracted about 1.4m international visitors. This year, there have been 3.4m. That is an increase of 234 per cent. When we record those visitors as person days (that is, taking into account their various lengths of stay), this represents the establishment of a new city of approximately the size of Palmerston North (72,000). Except these folk are on the move each day.
New Zealanders travelling in their own country recorded an additional 7.4 per cent growth this year to generate $20.4b in expenditure. These too could be key pathways to recovery for Kaikoura. Many would be surprised to learn that international visitors only account for about 40 per cent of tourist activity within New Zealand. In fact, only three of the 16 regions in New Zealand are more dependent for their income on international rather than domestic travellers.
There will be time to reflect in the integration of tourism destination plans with civil defence and emergency management plans and procedures, and again lessons to be learnt.
For the present, we need to be grateful that the earthquake happened at just after midnight, when most visitors are at their overnight accommodation.
Twelve hours earlier or later would produce a vastly different outcome, as indeed would the changeable weather which is part of our landscape. We have only minimal knowledge, and much of it now well dated on tourist daily travel and activity patterns. Much of this was generated some 15 years ago – when tourist volumes were half of what they are today. And markets and patterns do change.
While we can retrofit these data to local travel routes, build new itineraries for communications and model arrival times to support community recovery, much of this is really a belts and braces approach to one of our major industries. Tourism in Kaikoura is neither dead nor awaiting a miracle. What is required is a pragmatic and collaborative approach that rapidly re-calibrates tourism demand with community-supported tourism opportunities and experiences.
* This opinion piece was published at www.stuff.co.nz on 21 November 2016.