They were expecting a record-breaking season in Kaikoura, but locals fear the tourism boom has come to a swift and violent end.
The seaside town was built on the backs of international visitors, who flock to see its rugged coast and the wildlife living there.
About 80 per cent of Kaikoura's businesses cater for international visitors. When Monday's earthquake struck, about 85 per cent of people in the town were from overseas, mayor Winston Gray said.
Local tourism operators have busied themselves helping customers evacuate, but are now casting a nervous eye towards the future.
They agreed that the upcoming tourist season was a write-off. What came after that was unknown.
"This town is built on tourism," said Whale Watch general manager Kauahi Ngapora.
"Summer was just looking absolutely fantastic. This has put a really big dampener on that."
The Ngati Kuri-run business is the pride of Kaikoura. Its founders mortgaged their homes to build it during a recession in the 1980s, paving the way for other eco-tourism ventures.
Scientists confirmed on Wednesday that Kaikoura's seabed had risen by about a metre, which could have a disastrous impact on the marine economy.
Already boats had been stranded during low-tide and wildlife disrupted, perhaps a glimpse of the future
"One of the big issues we're having is the marina, because the coast line has risen. At the moment we can't get our boats out because they're pretty much sitting on the sea floor," Ngapora said.
"We're in this period now where we're close to when it happened and we're just trying to survive. As we move forward, what the future looks like is unclear."
Prime Minister John Key spoke to Kaikoura's businesses on Wednesday at a public meeting.
He did not mince his words, saying some international markets would be put off by the earthquakes.
The Government was looking at assistance packages, tax relief, and possibly emergency legislation similar to that passed following the Christchurch earthquakes.
"We're not going to muck around. My expectation would be that we'll be able to come up with some details in the next 24 to 48 hours," he said.
Business owners stressed to him the need for immediate support.
They relied on the booming summer season to survive the rest of the year. Having lost the upcoming season, it would be at least a year until business picked up.
Rusty Boyd's outdoor gear hire business was looking at significant financial loss after a good start to the season, he said.
The former Christchurch resident knew recovery would take time.
"It just took so long to get it back to where it was. The last week we were trading so well, now I don't know what will happen."
The road north of Kaikoura would likely be blocked for several months, further isolating the already remote town.
It may never be rebuilt, which would be a further blow.
"We're in dire straits as far as that's concerned, It's obvious to all that our tourist season is going to be severely impacted" said Dennis Buurman, general manager of wildlife encounter company Encounter Kaikoura.
Like the other marine based operators, he was concerned about the seabed lift.
"If it has risen as people are saying then that's really got huge consequences. That is extremely serious because we rely on that access in and out of the marina.
"You just don't want to think about what's going to happen there."
Much of the Ohau Point seal colony, one of the town's most popular tourist attractions, appeared to have been destroyed, DOC ranger Mike Morrissey said.
The broader impact on wildlife was not yet known, but could be significant.
"Without question the affected areas will experience significant changes in the quantity and composition of marine life. Recovery could take years and the 'recovered' state could look quite different," said Victoria University ecology professor Jeff Shima.
If the Christchurch earthquakes were any indication, it could take many months for visitors to start returning.
Kaikoura would likely face a "significant downturn" in the interim," said University of Otago tourism expert Dr Caroline Orchiston.
"There is likely to be a period of time when tourism marketing of Kaikoura simply won't be possible.
"The sooner positive messages about recovery in Kaikoura can get out to potential visitors, the better – but Kaikoura must be in a position to safely host guests, with the necessary tourism infrastructure before that can happen."