Rick Starr: When dust settles, tourism should make strong recovery

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Photo /  Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

Earthquakes are always disruptive and this is especially true for tourist destinations.

Tourism is big business for Canterbury, employing about 12 per cent of Christchurch's workforce.

In the year before the earthquake, this city of 400,000 had more than 2 million guests at hotels, staying for 4 million guest nights.

Of the nearly 6 million passengers who used Christchurch airport, many were tourists to Canterbury or transiting through to other vacation destinations.

The earthquake could have placed much of this business at risk.

It is still too early to consider economic outcomes as aftershocks are continuing and the true extent of the damage is not fully known.

But we do know that full economic and social recovery will require strong employment in the region. As the region plans and rebuilds, it is important to ask: what impact will this earthquake have on Canterbury's important tourism industry?

Fortunately, there is good reason to be optimistic. Christchurch has had a natural disaster but has been spared from administrative crises afterwards.

Foresight, wise investment and leadership have provided Christchurch, and New Zealand, with a robust set of systems to assist in disasters. As a result, we can sidestep the all-too-common crises that so often compound the damage after the event.

We can see the benefits already. The similar-magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti caused nearly 300,000 deaths last year.

In Christchurch, residents suffered only two serious injuries. This is, in part, the result of providence. But it is also an outcome of long-term prudence.

The unfolding earthquake recovery offers daily insights into what is good and special about New Zealand. Many helpful factors were put into place decades before the earthquake struck.

Our rigorous building codes, seismic strengthening programmes and good council oversight led directly to strong modern buildings.

Earthquake Commission insurance has provided a much stronger level of financial protection. Government bodies have worked like a well-oiled machine in the aftermath.

Chief medical officers, urban search and rescue teams and structural engineers all moved swiftly to protect residents from future hazards and to start the recovery.

The Prime Minister supervised, ministers helped and residents worked safely and co-operatively with authorities.

Each of these factors mitigated the damage and will aid in the rebuilding. So what can we expect for the tourism industry in Christchurch?

There is good research on tourism recovery after disaster. Sociologists have found that those caught in natural disasters go through a series of phases: shock, denial, acknowledgement and finally adaptation. During the final phase, our tourism will recover.

Tourism infrastructure is valuable in the recovery process as businesses are put to new uses. Hotels and motels become refuges for the displaced and restaurants will provide meals for residents and recovery workers.

As the recovery progresses, tourism ventures will return to their core business. Some have already reopened.

The prognosis for Christchurch tourism recovery is bright when compared with other damaged tourist locales. Canterbury has avoided the extreme outcome, in which total destruction becomes a tourist attraction.

We see this in the cases of Pompeii or Te Wairoa - the buried village, lost in the 1886 Tarawera eruption. But, in a related way, Canterbury will inevitably host a specialised group of tourists attracted directly by the earthquake.

These techno-tourists - seismologists, geologists, structural engineers, soil scientists, civil defence experts and the like - will come soon to learn from this latest earthquake.

Some areas require complete rebuilding after a disaster. This process recreated Napier as a centre of landmark art deco buildings.

Again, it appears that Christchurch has avoided this fate. While the damage has not been fully tallied, it appears that Christchurch will be able to retain many of its historic buildings and keep the ambience for which it is well known.

Careful planning and reconstruction will be needed to ensure that renovations retain the character of the city. This will attract future tourists as surely as it has attracted those in the past.

There will be a short-term impact on tourism. Visitor numbers will be down because most people do not like to visit areas under stress.

For a little while, having fewer tourists is a good thing. With unrepaired infrastructure and motels being used for emergency housing, Canterbury could not accommodate its usual level of tourists. Over time, capacity will increase and visitor numbers will resume.

It is reasonable to expect that the long-term impact of this earthquake on tourism will be essentially neutral. Christchurch will lose some history and build some new attractions, but tourism will probably return to normal and resume its recent growth trend.

Reconstruction will provide a positive economic impact during the recovery phase. Billions of dollars in reconstruction will aid the economy while tourism is reduced.

Furthermore, some of the insurance monies for the reconstruction will come from foreign insurers. This is an influx of foreign capital which is similar to the export earnings we gain from international visitors.

Despite the current suffering, the image of Christchurch as a destination has probably got off lightly. News media worldwide has covered the earthquake but it has uniformly emphasised our low casualty toll.

From an image point of view, this means that Christchurch has not been associated with human suffering but rather with good luck and capable response.

If the images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina represent a worst-case government response, then perhaps Christchurch represents the best that could be hoped for.

Over time, memories of the Christchurch earthquake will fade and tourists will recall the more traditional images of punting on the Avon.

Kiwis are resilient. Christchurch will heal and her tourism industry will return even stronger than before.

* Rick Starr is a senior lecturer, Department of Marketing, University of Auckland Business School.

- NZ Herald

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