New Zealand's borders fully re-open next month but how ready is the region for an expected rise in international visitors? Zoe Hunter and Laura Smith report.
A looming exodus of Kiwi workers overseas could "catastrophically" hit the Bay of Plenty hospitality sector when the borders fully re-open next month.
A Restaurant Association survey of 120 members found about half had staff applying for leave to travel overseas when the borders opened.
In the Bay of Plenty, 38 per cent say team members had applied for leave, slightly lower than the national average. There were 12 responses from the Bay of Plenty.
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said the industry was looking forward to the return of international visitors but the challenge was finding staff.
"Some staff are heading off on their OE and others are applying for leave to take long-overdue visits to reconnect with friends and family overseas.
"We have been experiencing a severe skills shortage in our industry and this has been exacerbated by the pandemic."
However, Bidois said the border reopening also meant restaurant owners would have access to skilled and unskilled migrant workers.
"Especially those coming in on student and working holiday visas now, and in July other workers who may find work in New Zealand through the Accredited Employer Work Visa.
"Being able to rely on the immigration lever when local talent head abroad or cannot be found in the country is vital to help address our staffing issues in the short term."
Bidois said the association was working closely with the Ministry of Social Development and has several training programmes to upskill and move people into the hospitality sector.
"Drawing new people into hospitality is crucial, particularly with the limits placed on immigration in recent times."
Bidois said the Bay, like other regions, was ready for the return of tourists.
"Though staffing is a challenge, our members are willing to go the extra mile, deliver the flavours, experiences and drawcards that people from near and far love."
However, Hospitality New Zealand Bay of Plenty branch president Reg Hennessy said the city was "certainly not" ready for the return of its international visitors.
Hennessy, who also owns Hennessy's Irish Bar in Rotorua, said the main challenge was the city's motels being used to house the homeless.
Staff shortages were also hitting the industry hard.
"We're going to have a major problem, it is going to be quite chronic.
"When we really start to come right, catastrophically we are going to have no staff for services."
It was going to be up to hospitality and tourism owners to make sure visitors had a good experience, he said.
"It's very important we do it right when they come. They will be able to be a lot more picky and fussy."
'Glimmer of hope'
Tourism Bay of Plenty general manager Oscar Nathan said an average of 1300 international visitors a day have spent time in the region since borders began reopening in March.
That was about 400 more a day than the previous month, he said.
"The number of international visitors has been steadily rising since March and this may be due to repatriating Kiwis showing as international visitors in the data."
Nathan said the numbers were a "glimmer of hope", with more international visitors expected in the region this spring and summer.
The region's tourism sector had some lead-in time before the next peak season started building in spring to prepare for international visitors.
"We have also enjoyed strong domestic visitor support while our international border was closed, so our regional tourism sector is not having to rebuild from scratch."
Efforts were being stepped up to support businesses that were solely or primarily focused on the international market and were now swinging back into gear as the border reopened, he said.
"Now that we have a firm date for the maritime border reopening and a confirmed start for the cruise season, we're reaching out to the operators that we know have been in hibernation as well as prospective new operators that could focus on providing onshore tour activities and sightseeing experiences to satisfy this returning market."
But Nathan said international travel has been reset during the pandemic and it was going to be difficult to predict visitor numbers in the coming months.
"The future is not going to look like the past.
"Our leading national tourism organisations are saying it might take up to four years to attract the same number of international visitors we had prior to Covid."
Tauranga City Council chairwoman Anne Tolley said she understood Tourism Bay of Plenty had been working hard with local operators to ensure the city was ready to welcome visitors.
"I understand the events calendar is filling up rapidly. Bring it on."
'It is not magic'
Hospitality New Zealand Bay of Plenty accommodation sector chairman Tony Bullot said businesses in Tauranga and Rotorua were "absolutely" ready for the return of tourists.
"It is what we do, it is in our blood."
But visitor numbers would not immediately return to what they were pre-Covid.
"It's not magic. We don't just turn on the tap and suddenly we're full."
Bullot said both cities were experiencing lots of last-minute bookings, making it tricky to forecast how busy they would continue to be.
"No one knows what's going to happen in the future."
'Lots of opportunities will come'
Tauranga Business Chamber spokeswoman Laura Boucher said local businesses would generally be welcoming visitors with open arms.
But she said tourism, hospitality and retail were still openly facing challenges such as supply issues and staffing.
Boucher said the public continued to support local businesses through tough times and she recommended businesses remain transparent about their availability and open hours, to set expectations and ensure visitors were not disappointed.
Boucher said the visitor experience would not be the same as it was pre-Covid, but the sentiment was to carry on.
Rotorua Business Chamber chief executive Bryce Heard said there was excitement and relief at the prospect of getting the tourism and hospitality sector back into action.
A consistent message from members was the difficulty they faced with replacing the staff that were lost post-Covid-19.
"There are stories of owners and managers doing their own hotel and motel cleaning as they move back into higher occupancy levels and struggle for good staff."
Bay of Plenty-based Labour list MP Angie Warren-Clark said there should be a Tauranga Moana-focused offering for when cruise ships returned so that passengers stayed in the city.
"I know the city is working hard on that, and working on an offering that brings our history and our story so that those tourists don't just jump on a bus and head to Rotorua."
Warren-Clark said she was aware that there was "significant pressure" around getting sufficient staff.
"I think with our borders opening there will be an opportunity to pick up people on working visas.
"Lots of opportunities will come. The world will go back to what we've always known in terms of our travel profile."
'The fact that we are still here is a miracle'
Wanderlust NZ owner Sarah Meadows said she was looking forward to welcoming international visitors.
"We have been ready for the last three years... bring it on."
But Meadows, who also owns Pacific Coast Lodge & Backpackers, said it took time for working holiday visas to be processed and they needed workers now.
Meadows said their summer season officially began when AIMS Game started in September.
"It is going to be full-on.
"We are just hoping and waiting for the working holiday visas to come back to fill our jobs."
She said she felt lucky to still be open as 56 per cent of backpackers' nationwide had closed.
"The fact that we are still here is a miracle.
"We can't wait to see more and more working holiday visas, they bring an awesome vibrancy to our town and fill a lot of jobs people are not prepared to do. We rely on them."
Luke van Veen, of Papa Mo's and Frosty & Fox, said the opening of the border had been "a long time coming".
he hoped the country would move out of the orange traffic light setting soon.
van Veen said hospitality staff had been working hard and, like others, were keen to go overseas and be reunited with family. He had a chef who was overseas visiting family.
"They are entitled to a holiday.
"That is part of business, people work hard and want to take holidays. It is about making it work."
He said staffing was a "massive challenge" that the industry had been struggling with for years.
"We are desperate for chefs and high-end hospitality staff. But there is no short fix for it."
The reopened borders meant more skilled workers would arrive, he said.
"I think it is a step in the right direction. It has been a tough few years."
Tauranga Airport manager Ray Dumble said they were "well and truly" ready for visitors.
"From the last school holidays, it has gone berserk. It is very busy."
Domestic travel had been busy pre-Covid but the airport was "very busy" in the first few weeks when the borders first opened.
There were "special moments" with family arriving from Australia who had not yet met their young grandchildren.
"Now it is exciting to see the ones travelling overseas."
Looking forward to summer, Dumble said Air New Zealand has reported flight numbers were looking good.
Rotorua Airport chief executive Nicole Brewer said the Omicron outbreak and red traffic light setting had meant passenger numbers were below target.
There were signs this was improving.
"It is really exciting to see the airport getting busier and a lot more people travelling than there were earlier in the year."
Rotorua Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button said now that the borders had reopened several employees had left for overseas experiences and the announcement left no time for planning.
"You have got a bit of a vacuum with domestics leaving and no working holiday visas to fill those voids."
He said he was excited about the future, but "we're not out of the doldrums".