Friday, 18 November 2016

NEW ZEALAND: New Bookings Stream In After The Earthquake

Opening a $2000-a-night luxury lodge within hours of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake might not seem like an auspicious start.

But after an initial flurry of cancellations, the new Marlborough Lodge in Blenheim has received a steady stream of new bookings as tourists affected by road closures seek alternative accommodation.

The Marlborough Tour Company had just completed six months worth of very expensive renovations on the lodge and general manager Scott McKenzie says they got off lightly in the earthquake.

We had a couple of wine glasses and flower vases fall over and nothing else."

The company's vineyard tours and seafood cruises out of Picton and Havelock were back in operation on Tuesday, and it is anxious to see ferry passenger sailings into Picton return to normal as soon as possible.

It was a similar story for other South Island tourism operators as the implications of the massive Kaikoura quake began to sink in.

As part of its strategy to support Canterbury tourism in the wake of the 2011 earthquakes, Christchurch Airport promoted "top of the south" tour routes encouraging visitors to visit Kaikoura, Hanmer Springs, Nelson and the West Coast.

With one of those destinations out of the running, the juggle of re-jigging thousands of visitor itineraries has begun.

Justin Watson, the airport's chief commercial officer aeronautical, says tourists come here to "do" things, rather than blob out on a beach, and that's a big plus in the wake of the latest natural disaster.

"We're not a 'fly and flop' destination so people don't just go to one place, unless they go skiing for a week.

"People will trip around, so taking out one area - in this case, Kaikoura - there's still plenty of other places for people to go, and they will find alternatives.

"I spoke to a number of visitors that came from Kaikoura on the evacuation boat and came out to the airport to get rental cars. The great majority of them are still continuing their holiday."

Tourism West Coast is already getting a "a heck of a lot of enquiries," according to chief executive Jim Little.

"I rang one [accommodation business] on Monday at lunch time and they'd had 14 cancellations. Then he rang me back at 5pm and said they were full again.

"People were cancelling because they couldn't get there and were being diverted, and others were picking up a new itinerary and rebooking."

Little said there were 6000 beds available on the coast and although bottlenecks were inevitable in Punakaiki and Franz Josef, there was capacity in places like Reefton, Westport and Lake Brunner.

Nelson too is expecting to help take up the slack resulting from Kaikoura's enforced isolation.

Nelson Regional Development Agency chief executive Mark Rawson says visitors may stay longer and a big increase in the number of flights to and from the region may see more tourists choose to fly to Christchurch or points north, rather than driving.

With the closure of the Kaikoura coast road, State Highway 7 over the Lewis Pass has become a de facto State Highway 1, and Hanmer Springs is hoping at least some of that increased tourist traffic will detour in its direction.

Thermal pools general manager Graham Abbot says the town came through the earthquake largely unscathed, and the pool complex only closed the day of the earthquake because there was no electricity.

"There's been a little bit of damage to a water slide tower that we can fix. We're insured for $32 million and we might have $5000 to $10,000 damage."

However, the scramble to divert people away from earthquake-affected areas has highlighted the lack of detailed information on visitor travel.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief Chris Roberts says tracking cell phone usage offers a way of gathering that important data, and on Friday the issue was raised at a meeting with the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

Knowing how many visitors would normally be expected through an area like Kaikoura at peak season, and the routes they would take to get there, would help plan possible diversions.

Despite tourism industry efforts to picking itself up and carry on, there are still concerns about the potential impact of those dramatic pictures of collapsed hillsides obliterating roads and railway tracks.

Asiana​ Airlines from South Korea has opted to cancel charter flights that were due to start in early December bringing up to 2500 visitors.

Managing director of China Travel Service Lisa Li​ was in China when the earthquake struck and she says coverage of the two deaths and the tsunami threat got a lot of attention on social media.

But the pictures of Kaikoura residents rescuing paua and crayfish left high and dry by the uplift in the seabed were powerful too.

"There was some very positive media … they could see that Kiwis really cared about the natural environment and the future."

Across the Tasman The Australian newspaper carried a front page story saying the earthquake had "reduced large swathes of the South Island to rubble."

Australians are our biggest market and that sort of inaccuracy riles Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism chief Vic Allen. "It's terrible but we're getting our own message out there."

The message, communicated to tourism operators and agreed to by government agencies like Tourism New Zealand, is that they should refer to the event as the "Kaikoura earthquake."

The reference to the North Canterbury earthquake in overseas media was being linked to Christchurch, says Allen when the city is 180km from Kaikoura, and was undamaged.

In the year to September tourism earned Kaikoura $120m, well over half of it from international visitors.

The frustrating thing for Destination Kaikoura general manager Glenn Ormsby is that a quick survey of tourism accommodation and activity providers found about 60 per cent of them would be back in business tomorrow if electricity, sewage and road access were available.

He says that of 14 accommodation businesses, only four could not open.

Even if Kaikoura became a dead end that was only accessible from the south, Ormsby is confident the town would survive.

"If our whales and dolphins return, we think we will be ok because no one else offers that experience."

Kate Deng's travel company specialises in independent Chinese travellers and she had about 700 booked to visit in November.

Instead of going to Kaikoura to eat crayfish and see whales other wildlife, they'll go to Akaroa to pet alpacas and take dolphin cruises.

Black Cat Cruises chief executive Paul Milligan welcomes the extra business even if it gets a bit tight over the peak summer season when cruise ships call in.

"Squeezing all of the Kaikoura traffic through Akaroa is going to make it chocka, so I imagine some of it will disperse a bit wider."