NZ tourism sector needs international visitors to 'thrive'

Before Covid-19, tourism was New Zealand's largest export, generating $41 billion for the New Zealand economy in 2019 alone. When the virus arrived and New Zealand shut down, that dropped to $26 billion by 2021.

It was domestic tourism that saved the industry from complete collapse, but local tourism operators say in order to thrive rather than survive, they need the international tourists to come back.

Mike Grogan, who owns Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours in Hahei, says he lost 80% of his customers when the border shut.

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"To lose those was a really big hit, but that being said, Kiwis were huge for us - we've got the philosophy where we say 'hey, half a loaf of bread is better than no bread at all.'"

"That was helpful, but we need our international friends back."

On Wednesday, Tourism New Zealand launched its new ad campaign to lure international tourists back to New Zealand. While they're trying to attract "high quality" international tourists, (people who will stay a long time and spend lots of money), the pandemic taught the sector that the domestic tourist market is vital for its survival.

"I think one of the learnings is the importance of domestic visitors for tourism." Tourism New Zealand CEO Rene De Monchy said.

"The resilience of the sector will be built on New Zealanders getting out and about."

Domestic tourists acted as the backbone of the industry during the pandemic, but now local operators are competing with the rest of the world for their dollars.

Brent Thomas from House of Travel says bookings for the summer show that Kiwis are keen to leave the nest, wanting to explore the world after being cooped up in New Zealand.

"They want to connect with loved ones, have adventures, and just get out after such a long period of being locked down."

On top of many New Zealanders heading overseas this summer, the international travellers may not flood back to our corner of the world either.

Borders have been open to all countries since the end of July, with over 8000 people entering so far this August.

Couple on the Tongariro Crossing in the central North Island.

Tourism New Zealand expects a gradual influx leading up to summer, meaning New Zealanders may notice a few extra people around, but nothing compared to what the country had pre-pandemic.

"We've got good interest for summer as we look ahead, but at the moment it is pretty constrained," said De Monchy. "Whether its flights, labour or the supply chain. So that's one thing... there's quite a few limitations on the supply side."

Air New Zealand recently announced they were trimming down their schedule by 10 domestic and one international flight per day, from September through to March - a symptom of worker shortages and disruption around the world.

It's because of these issues, that De Monchy says it's better to ease the industry back into peak tourism.

"Dealing with the challenges of growth is a hell of a lot better than what they've had to deal with the past couple [of] years. But certainly, for us, we're now in the middle of winter, as we head towards the summer, which is more of our traditional peak, it's actually good having a bit of a runway to do that."

Despite warnings of a slow burn, Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours are making sure they're prepared for anything.

"We've got no choice but to just get organised, recruit staff where we can, and just be ready for a busy one and cross our fingers and hope they are coming," Grogan said.

The alone time with Kiwi tourists also helps them improve the product for when international visitors come back.

"If Kiwis love it, we know our international friends are all over it, so we're just desperate to get them back in here.

Our boats are clean, our beaches are empty, we're just ready to go kayaking and show the place off."


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