Body-slammed overnight by Covid-19, Queenstown has gone from being the Monopoly square everyone wanted, to a community faced with closed hotels and locals queuing for food parcels. Jane Phare looks at how the alpine playground plans to survive.
Six months ago Queenstown was a buzzy boomtown that scarcely had time to catch its breath before the next wave of tourists arrived. Money for nothing, and not much was for free.
Now, at the local Pak 'n Save, a long queue of locals wait to collect food vouchers. Thousands in the town can't pay basic bills. How could that be?
Last year the community's main complaints were about all those new subdivisions and new schools that filled up too quickly, airport expansion plans, traffic jams, too many tourists, not enough infrastructure to cope.
Before Covid, 4WDs with snorkels competed with campervans for a carpark at the Five Mile complex in what looked increasingly like an Auckland shopping centre: two big supermarkets, the Warehouse, Kmart, Mitre 10 Mega, Noel Leeming, a multi-bay car wash. A new Bunnings was to be next.
Now, on paddocks near the airport, campervans and rental cars are lined up in rows like gravestones, clocking up daily storage fees.
Pre-Covid, Queenstown was a community that felt blessed. And why not? Turn a 360-degree circle and there isn't an inch of alpine scenery that can't be described as breathtaking.
It's why millionaire and billionaire moguls like Anthony Malkin, part owner of the Empire State Building, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, businessman Sir Eion Edgar, hedge fund pioneer Julian Robertson, Kim Dotcom and Sam Morgan own property there.
In peak season, around 880 commercial jets a month roared down through the mountains into Queenstown Airport, offloading thousands of tourists loaded with cash. Ka-ching.
Then, suddenly, tourism was effectively grounded. The tourists, particularly the international ones, had gone. And now, no-one is quite sure when they'll be coming back.
In town, some hotels are still closed and many cafes, restaurants and tourist attractions are operating on reduced hours. The popular Shotover Jet that took Prince William and Kate on a thrilling ride through the canyon is still closed, reopening on July 3 for the school holidays.
All over town there are deals, special room rates, packages, price reductions for tourist attractions, slim margins.
Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult knows his town is in for a very, very rough ride.
Last year tourism was worth around $2.5 billion to the district. More than 65 per cent of the tourists came from overseas, the rest were Kiwis. But foreign visitors spend much more than locals so they contributed a fair whack of that $2.5b.
The town is hanging out for the transtasman bubble and September seems to be the magic month. But their hopes may have been dashed after an ominous warning from the Australian Government that Aussies may not be allowed to travel until next year.
Ahead, Queenstown faces a projected unemployment rate of 18.5 per cent and a $633 million dent in its GDP. Not to mention what Boult refers to as a looming humanitarian crisis of hospitality and tourism workers who, at best, will do it tough and at worst will be left homeless and hungry.
Boult's wife Karen is one of the volunteers who have made more than 20,000 calls to help 7000 desperate locals registered on the council website. They need vouchers to buy food, some are behind in rent and 110 locals couldn't afford to go to the doctor.
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More than $2.5m has been paid out from the Civil Defence Emergency Fund and there will be more to come. Locals have stepped up too, so far raising more than $750,000 to help frontline charities.
But what's worrying Boult is whether it will be enough. Once the wage subsidy runs out, he knows some long-term migrants will lose their jobs.
Some have worked in the town for more than 10 years doing jobs that Kiwis can't, or won't, do – cleaning, driving, serving in bars, restaurants and cafes, Boult says. They've paid taxes, helped tourism grow and their kids go to local schools.
"They just don't have the piece of paper to say that they are a Kiwi. We will simply have to find a way to resolve the issue."
Rental housing is not a problem now
If nothing else, Covid has solved one drastic problem for Queenstown - a lack of rental accommodation.
The local papers used to be full of job advertisements but just a handful of rentals. Now, jobs ads are scarce but there are pages of rentals as Airbnb properties come back into the pool.
And the enforced halt caused by Covid-19 will give the council a chance to catch up with infrastructure, something Boult says they could never get on top of given the district's explosive growth rate.
But right now, Queenstown's in survival mode. Boult has one taskforce looking at short-term ways to attract visitors, including hosting events and conventions. Last week the town hosted its first conference since lockdown, causing the Crowne Plaza hotel to reopen earlier than planned.
Another group is looking at Queenstown's future. It's not rocket science to see that the town's economy can never again risk being 100 per cent reliant on tourism. Boult's taskforce is looking at how to attract new business. Tech industries, education, the film industry and medical tourism are some of the ideas.
Why not create a centre of excellence for the likes of cosmetic surgery, Boult says. Plenty of top surgeons and specialists already have holiday homes in the area. "If you want to have your nose done or whatever, what better place to recover than here?"
Diversifying Queenstown's economy is something that local lawyer Steven Brent, of RVG Law, has been concerned about for years, saying that tourism should be the icing on top, but not the whole cake.
He's concerned that Queenstown's in a "post-Covid dream world", that once Southlanders get over the novelty of visiting Queenstown at weekends, things are going to get really tough. "I think there's going to be a lot of failures, to be honest."
Construction will take a big hit, with a number of projects already mothballed. Some tradies have already left town, Brent says, heading for Dunedin with a promise of work on its university and hospital, and Invercargill which – not being reliant on tourism – will recover more quickly.
He's predicting "carnage" in the investment property market, as highly leveraged investors with no income are forced to sell.
The principal of Remarkables Primary School, Debbie Dickson, is closely watching her school roll of 578 children. Once the wage subsidy stops and mortgage holidays end, she's predicting many families, including migrants, may have to leave the district.
Added to that, 90 per cent of her teaching staff have partners who are either in tourism or the trades.
Wakatipu High School principal Steve Hall faces the same uncertainty over what the school roll, currently just over 1000, will look like by the end of the year. But a multimillion-dollar project to build additional classrooms and a new gymnasium is going ahead.
Hall predicts that by the time the project is complete in the next two or three years, Queenstown will have recovered and the school will be again heading towards its capacity of 1800.
Jonathan Wallis, whose father, aviation entrepreneur Sir Tim Wallis, founded the popular Warbirds over Wanaka air show, says no-one could have predicted the global pandemic, nor could they have built it into their business plan.
The Wallis family, owners of the Alpine Group including Southern Lakes Helicopters, has been as hard hit as anyone. Their helicopters took tourists sight-seeing, heli-skiing, heli-biking or on longer trips to tourist meccas like Milford Sound.
Their choppers were also used to transport high-end tourists to the luxury chalets the family had built in the tussock overlooking Lake Wanaka on their high-country property, the 20,000 hectare Minaret Station.
Almost overnight, much of that business was gone but the high overheads weren't. Added to that was the collapse of the venison market. Wallis and his brother Toby run 14,000 red deer on the station, relying on the Northern Hemisphere hospitality sector for export. That market has pretty much disappeared, causing the price for venison to drop by more than half.
But, says Wallis, he and his brother look for the positives. Compared to what happened in 2018, Covid-19 is nothing. That year, two of the four Wallis brothers, Matthew and Nick, died in separate helicopter crashes.
Now Jonathan Wallis looks at life after Covid differently. "The most important thing is we have our health," he says. "We're Kiwis. So despite the pain we're going through and for some the pain is greater than others, we've got to stay positive about it."
Signs of hope post-Covid
In among the economic trauma that is Queenstown, there are some green shoots. With plenty of snow around, bookings for the July school holidays are looking strong. Millbrook Resort is booked out and August looks promising, too.
Like everyone else in Queenstown, Millbrook management had to hustle for business during lockdown. They launched Millbrook at Home, offering a series of takeaway menus of reasonably priced meals, including what the locals fondly call "boil-in-the-bag" options like vacuum-packed lamb shanks.
The plan was to keep the takeaway service going until things got back to normal but, says the resort's director of operations Brian Howie, it's been so "phenomenally successful" they've decided to keep it going.
In downtown Queenstown, renowned artist Tim Wilson and his husband Vaj Ekanayake expected business to be well down in the absence of wealthy international tourists.
Four years ago an Abu Dhabi prince walked into the Wilson Gallery and paid $575,000 for a painting, setting a record price for a living New Zealand artist. Wilson knows that his $700,000 work-in-progress painting, Fiordland Fantasy, currently hanging in the gallery, is unlikely to be snapped up by a local.
But then, once the gallery reopened, New Zealanders started buying. A Nelson client bought a $240,000 impression of Haast. Another woman spent $180,000 on two paintings.
Then came a $40,000 sale, with another $48,000 painting on hold, and inquiries coming in from Australia, the US and Singapore.
Last week an American visitor who had been in Queenstown in March bought a $240,000 South Island diptych called Dream, bringing their total sales to $700,000 since lockdown.
Ekanayake is optimistic that the local market will continue to grow, that if Kiwis with money can't spend it overseas, they will spend it at home.
And Queen's Birthday weekend gave the town hope, and every weekend since. The town filled with 4WDs as Kiwis drove from Southland, Christchurch and the surrounding areas, and visitors from Wellington and Auckland flew in.
Restaurants were full, jet boats zoomed around Lake Wakatipu, the Skyline gondola was going again and the queue reappeared outside Fergburger.
In the fully-booked Novotel Queenstown on the lakefront, staff charged about serving plates of Big Breakfast designed with Invercargill in mind rather than China or India.
Cautiously optimistic about support from Kiwis
The Novotel's general manager Jim Moore, like other tourism operators, is cautiously optimistic about the level of support from Kiwi visitors. A cluster of hotels that had planned to stay closed until October at least will now open for the July school holidays.
His bookings are steady for the school holidays, but with Australian visitors still absent, Moore's team are working on resizing the business. The plan, as it is for so many, is to survive until the tourists return.
On the opposite corner is the 1860s Williams Cottage, a Queenstown fixture that could tell a few stories about hardship. In the hallway, chest-high tide marks on the original wallpaper show where Lake Wakatipu rose, and rose again, spreading its icy fingers through the town, leaving behind millions of dollars in damage and devastated business owners.
But the town recovered and Jim Boult is confident they'll do it again. He's hoping Queenstown will get the green light for $300m worth of shovel-ready projects, including one that will divert traffic away from the centre of town and upgrade the retail area to become more pedestrian friendly.
"Downtown Queenstown is arguably the most valuable asset in the New Zealand tourism offering and we need to protect it."
And he's hoping Project Manawa - a new civic centre, performing arts centre, a library and council offices – will be fast tracked, too.
The primary driver is job creation, he says, 1600 of them. It'll involve some job retraining.
"If you can't swing a knife in a kitchen perhaps you can swing a shovel on a building site until the tourism industry recovers."