A hotel broker wants nearly 20,000 extra hotel rooms to boost the existing 6500 managed isolation rooms and a Government official says Rotorua and Christchurch properties are being investigated to potentially add to the stock.
Dean Humphries, the Auckland-based national hotel director for agency Colliers, said about 18,500 extra New Zealand hotel rooms could be used to vastly boost managed isolation and quarantine capacity. It made no sense to use only about a quarter of our hotel rooms and he asked why space was being strangled, he said on the day the Government changed the booking system.
"Why not open them all? It's a disaster the way it is," Humphries said.
Andrew Milne, associate deputy secretary of Management Isolation and Quarantine, told the Herald yesterday new hotels in two areas were being considered.
"Due to extremely high demand for MIQ space, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is investigating potentially bringing additional facilities online. We are still in the early stages of investigating potential options, including in Rotorua and Christchurch, but no decisions have been made," Milne said today.
The new lobby booking system was yesterday being called a joke as thousands of Kiwis overseas piled in to try it.
Humphries said New Zealand has about 25,000 hotel rooms, most in tourist hot spots Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.
"But only about 6500 rooms are used for MIQ purposes, which represents just 25 per cent of the country's total inventory. The remaining 75 per cent are either sitting empty or well below capacity in terms of occupancy. Many of these hotel owners would welcome MIQ business," Humphries said.
He acknowledged the Government only had so much to spend on hotel rooms "but we need to find a solution to this growing problem".
Milne indicated an appetite to consider expansion but stressed the final decision would be made by Cabinet ministers.
"We have identified hotels that could potentially be suitable and we are now engaging with them and with key local stakeholders. Due to commercial sensitivity, we will not be naming the hotels.
"There are a lot of complex issues that need to be considered for operating MIQ facilities, including workforce supply to support our operations, suitability of the hotels and proximity to hospital facilities and appropriate transport hubs," he said.
That is why Rotorua and Christchurch were being investigated rather than more remote locations.
"We are mindful of the impact additional facilities could have on local iwi, workforces, housing and economic activity, including tourism, and these will be part of our assessments, discussions and considerations," Milne said.
Iwi engagement was vital and taking this step early on now reflects a deep commitment to building and strengthening relationships with iwi-Māori partners in MIQ regions, Milne said.
"Any expansion of MIQ's capacity needs to be carefully considered against our primary objective – which is to operate in a way that ensures we keep Covid-19 out of our community, and keep our returnees and staff safe," Milne said.
The Herald reported yesterday that Kiwis abroad who are desperate to get home found themselves waiting in a queue with about 25,000 others in the new MIQ booking system, while authorities say those who missed out on a spot will have to wait until next week.
The new "virtual lobby" system launched at 8am yesterday for people to book for around 3000 new room releases in MIQ across September, October, November and December.
But screenshots taken from New Zealanders living overseas show the number of people waiting in the randomised queue surpassed 30,000.
Humphries said the current system was also inefficient with at least a 14-day gap between intakes of new guests.
"That means many of the MIQ hotels are running at less than 50 per cent occupancy," he said.
"We continue to allow sporting teams and other priority groups into Aotearoa before hard-working Kiwis citizens stuck overseas," he protested.
"Surely we can also look at the ability to isolate at home for fully vaccinated Kiwis, [after a rapid Covid test on arrival] and a daily check-in system," he said.
In the meantime, Air New Zealand and the hotel sector struggled through the most significant economic catastrophe of our time, Humphries said.
"There is so much more capacity, we just need to find a pragmatic way to immediately address this," he said.
The hotel sector understood what a huge amount of work was involved to expand the inventory but Humphries said the private sector was ready, willing and able.
Some hotels with empty rooms needed a boost like this to get them through to Christmas too, he said.
There are only 32 MIQ hotels, but 250 hotels in New Zealand, he said.
"A lot of those 250 hotels are running at occupancies below 20 per cent and some of them are empty so it seems like a logical solution at a time where the industry desperately needs some help."
Inquiries have been sent to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment about the possibility of expanding the scheme.
The MIQ website says operational capacity is 4000 rooms per fortnight. In July, more than 9500 people came through MIQ facilities.
Managed Isolation and Quarantine says that it was experiencing the highest levels of demand and website traffic since the system was introduced in October 2020.
"On average, there are 17,000 to 19,000 users on the website each day. This is up from 5000 users each day in April. Between August 3 to 9, there were approximately 19,600 users on the website per day," it said.
"During April and May we had a sustained period of lower demand where MIQ spaces were available for many weeks. On July 7, 3341 rooms were released for September, October and November, and these were booked within three hours," it said.
"Since launch in October 2020, we have made over 200 improvements to the system. In July, 34 improvements were made. A total of 30,351 rooms since early March 2021 have been made available for the period from June through to the end of November 2021 as at August 3. During the period March 2021 till the end of November 2021, nearly 104,000 returnees have secured a date to return home, from over 180 countries," it said.
National's Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said the virtual lobby system "solves nothing and has just created even more angst amongst the thousands of Kiwis trying to come home".
The Opposition has called for a prioritisation system based on points to allocated places, based on need.
"There are Kiwis stuck offshore who aren't legally allowed to be in the country they're currently in, but who can't get home to New Zealand. This is an awful situation and one entirely of the Government's own creation."
The Herald is seeking comment from Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins.