International tourists are already planning to return to New Zealand this side of Christmas, says the Tourism Export Council as it calls for the government not to abandon the once-booming sector.
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Tourism New Zealand leading plans to radically change approach to visitor industry
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Skyline Enterprises to cut jobs, tourism towns reach breaking point
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Shotover Jet, top tourism attractions close as Ngāi Tahu Tourism cuts 300+ jobs
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Bali reveals plan to return tourists by May
Chief executive Lynda Keene said she was concerned the economic significance of international tourism was being forgotten now Tourism New Zealand had been tasked with focusing on domestic tourism.
In the short-term a focus on domestic tourism "made sense" but international tourism contributed $17 billion to the economy and it was premature to write it off, she said.
Inbound international tourism and travel was the country's largest source of export receipts before the sudden collapse of global travel in the past two months as nations closed their borders for an indefinite period to fight the global covid-19 pandemic.
International travel agents were still holding bookings for New Zealand, and airlines had retained their landing slots at Auckland Airport, suggesting the sector was poised for a partial recovery, Keene said.
"It's not the big writeoff the commentary is suggesting," Keene said. "International tourism still has a prospect of beginning to creep back into the New Zealand economy before Christmas."
Justin Tighe-Umbers, executive director of airline industry association BARNZ, said that last April there were 31 airlines flying 740,000 seats into New Zealand. This April there were just three airlines flying 40,000 seats into New Zealand.
This 95 percent reduction in international travel had been a "seismic shock" for both the airline and tourism industry and was "unimaginable" at the start of the year, he said.
Auckland International Airport announced major staff cuts yesterday and Air New Zealand announced this morning that it was closing permanently its five year-old Auckland-Buenos Aires service and would not reopen its Los Angeles-to-London route after June 30, when it will review other shuttered international routes. The end of that service had been announced for October before the pandemic took hold.
Watch and wait
Tighe-Umbers said the fact many airlines had suspended services to New Zealand rather than pulling out of the market meant they were "there and waiting" for when travel was able to resume.
Some airlines have approached BARNZ to explore the possibility of resuming some services as early as June this year.
To ensure the industry is well-placed to take advantage of a recovery, the Tourism Export Council is asking the government to extend another 12-week wage subsidy to affected tourism businesses.
All other sectors – even retail and hospitality – would be able to begin recovering once the domestic recovery restarted. But international tourism wouldn't, which is why specific support was needed to protect the billion-dollar exporter, Keene said.
"We are not asking for a handout, we are asking for a hand up," she said. "We've built a $40 billion tourism industry and we'll help drive the economy back to where it needs to be."
Tourism Holdings chief executive Grant Webster said that while the government had acknowledged the disproportionate impact on the tourism industry as a result of measures to fight the spread of covid-19, he wasn't aware of any government measures specifically aimed at supporting the industry.
"The reality is I've seen nothing or heard of any specific plans. However, I know that they're listening. What they're considering I don't know."
Current workforce could halve
Webster estimated there were about 400,000 jobs in tourism and associated activities. With no international tourists, the industry is facing a 70 percent to 80 percent reduction in revenue.
However, economists' forecasts of unemployment that he had seen appeared to be assuming the loss of tourism-related jobs would be about 100,000.
However, Webster said it was "not unrealistic" that the unemployment impact could be double that.
Tourism Holdings itself has accessed both Australia's jobkeeper scheme, which pays A$1,500 a fortnight per eligible employee for six months from March 30, and New Zealand's wage subsidy of $585.80 a week per full-time employee or $350 a week per part-time employee for 12 weeks, Webster said.
If New Zealand and Australia were to reopen their borders to each other, Webster said that would mean his company could start functioning at a reasonable level, although nowhere near normal.
While Tourism Holdings' biggest group of campervan customers were tourists from Europe, Webster said about 25 percent of its campervan customers in Australia were Australians.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a press conference on Thursday that New Zealand was the obvious candidate for first resuming international air links as the two countries shared a similar trajectory in terms of stamping out the virus.
"If there is any country in the world with whom we can reconnect with first, undoubtedly that's New Zealand," he said.
Morrison said he had discussed the prospect of reopening the border with Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern.
Anna Black, chair of the Tourism Export Council, said New Zealand had been seen internationally in a positive light due to taking early action to stamp out the virus, playing into an existing reputation as a safe travel destination.
Overseas travel agencies are hoping for travel to resume in September or October, while recognising this would be unrealistic if the current 14-day isolation requirement remained.
New bookings have dried up but existing bookings have mostly been retained or merely postponed.
"We've been perceived as 'doing all the right things' and most agents we've spoken to have not lost any forward bookings for New Zealand," Black said.
Bookings for April and May have been pushed back to October or November, with extra planning being done to move them into 2021 if needed.
"There is a lot of booking, rebooking and rebooking again," she said.
"There is still a genuine wish and need for travelling. There are just still many questions around social distancing and how this will work."