When Whale Watch opened its doors in 1987, it was seen as a solution to growing unemployment and poverty among Maori in Kaikoura. Passengers travelled aboard a small inflatable vessel and its founders were forced to mortgage their homes to provide funds to establish the business.
Now its chief operating officer, Kauahi Ngapora, sits at the helm of an operation widely considered to be one of New Zealand's leading tourism experiences, boasting six custom-built boats, an operation in the Gold Coast, and around 100,000 visitors each year.
The business launched its China strategy just three years ago, but has already made significant headway. Ngapora says the Chinese tourist market is one of Whale Watch's most rapidly growing sectors, but he stresses it is not an easy sector to target. He emphasises the importance of focus and patience with timing being crucial to success. His advice that "China is a marathon, not a sprint," speaks against the common perception of China as a fast route to riches.
"Like many other New Zealand tourism businesses, the more traditional markets have been a key driver for us, but with the global financial crisis, the high dollar, and for our region, events in Christchurch, New Zealand tourism as a whole has really suffered, but particularly those traditional markets," says Ngapora.
"That's why we looked three years ago at where the opportunities lie, and we started really targeting Asia, and that's where our key focus is now."
Many Chinese visitors seek a unique experience of our natural environment, far removed from China's polluted and densely populated cities. The challenge lies in getting them to Kaikoura. Chinese visitors have traditionally been shorter-stay, group travellers, less likely to venture out of the large cities.
The Christchurch earthquake also affected Whale Watch's ability to attract high-end Asian tourists, who demand top-quality hotels and infrastructure during their stay. "Before the earthquake, 75 per cent of our business came from Christchurch, and now that's around 52 per cent," says Ngapora.
He says the emergence of the semi- and fully independent Chinese tourist has proved lucrative. These tourists are more willing to travel to a remote location for a distinctive experience, and provide a welcome boost to the region throughout their stays. Between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of Whale Watch's international visitors now come from Asia.
A key feature of Whale Watch's China strategy has been its partnership with China Southern Airlines, which came about during a trade fair in Guangzhou. This relationship took over a year to build, and involves discounts and advertising offered to the airline's frequent flyer customers.
The Maori culture aspect of the business has played an important role in structuring Whale Watch's approach to this alliance.
"Our cultural connections allow us to get some really meaningful relationships going, and I think the approach we use is to focus on establishing that relationship first, and then doing the business afterwards, rather than the other way round, " says Ngapora.
"When we're hosting a dinner, we like to do a mihimihi, we sing a waiata, and our Chinese counterparts say that they do the same. I think that sort of cultural exchange takes the edge off meetings and makes people feel a lot more relaxed. Maori and Chinese cultures connect well."
Whale Watch has employed Mandarin-speaking staff, who translate website information and guides, and advertises on local Chinese blogs and travel websites. It is also leveraging its recent international awards for sustainable tourism, to establish key strategic relationships with businesses throughout China.
Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island, is one of the only places in the world where you can easily see sperm whales. Sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, grow to more than 15 metres in length. At a time when Maori were casualties of Kaikoura's declining economy. Kati Kuri leaders like Bill Solomon believed the local sperm whales held the answer to the unemployment problems. They knew their ancestor Paikea had journeyed to a new life in New Zealand on the back of the whale Tohora. It seemed appropriate for Paikea's descendants to again ride on the back of the whale to a new life.