New Zealand-owned Scenic Hotel Group will reopen a hotel in Tonga as part of a strategy to move into underdeveloped tourism markets in the Pacific.
Domestically the group employs more than 700 people and owns 17 hotels split across a three-star Heartland brand, a four-star Scenic brand and a five-star property at Franz Josef Glacier.
Next Monday it will launch the four-star Scenic Hotel Tonga on Tongatapu as part of a joint venture with business partner Terry Hayden. The 57-room hotel hit trouble four years ago. It is valued at $14 million to $18 million and for the past 10 months Scenic Group has managed it under receivership.
Managing director Brendan Taylor sees endless potential for tourism in Tonga. He says it has the same sandy white atoll beaches and whale experiences as higher-profile destinations such as Fiji, and its outer islands are a spectacular secret.
"There is a lot of tourist movements out to Vava'u because of the yacht charters, in the winter you get the humpback whales. I went out a couple of years ago and on the last day we had 22 whales there - you're talking in six to eight metres of really shallow water. It really was an amazing experience."
But tourism infrastructure, including accommodation, is not widely developed, on a par with Fiji 20 years ago.
Mr Taylor said Scenic's experience in developing tourism in regional areas of New Zealand such as the West Coast meant it had relevant experience to draw on for this venture.
The group will train Tongans in its New Zealand businesses, a step Mr Taylor hoped would have a wider impact on the hospitality industry over time, as more ventures started and staff were able to take their skills elsewhere if they chose.
Scenic is also looking at developing the hotel's land - which is leased from a Tongan prince - into a garden reflecting the country's agricultural base. Vanilla and tropical fruits would be prominent and it would give guests an authentic view into a way of life that many rely on in the Pacific to supplement their diets and family incomes.
The hotel is five minutes from a top-rated snorkelling beach - Fua'amotu - and half an hour from the capital, Nuku'alofa.
The group has worked at building relationships with government ministers and public servants, inviting them to observe the redevelopment and explaining its plans to develop the workforce.
"We've had really good buy-in from the ministers and the Prime Minister. There are a few issues but we just slowly work through those, there will always be a little bit of corruption.
"We want to keep everything straight down the line ... some people are starting to find that out now that we don't want to play those games."
Scenic Hotel Group has looked at other Pacific markets - Niue was on its radar for a time.
It is a region Mr Taylor believes still remains massively undervalued.
"I look at it from the point that the whole Pacific rim is really undervalued ... it's just a matter of getting some infrastructure there and promoting it."