This year marks 39 years since I moved to Queenstown and became part of the district's business community. Therefore, I think I know something about both the district and the business.
There's been much comment in the mainstream media and on social media regarding our district's and wider tourism's current plight. So I thought I'd drop a line and tell you all how I see things. And this is not a moan, it's just setting out reality.
For a long period of time, per head of population, our little district in the far south (not just Queenstown, but Wānaka, Glenorchy, Makarora, Kingston and our other small towns) made a greater contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand's GDP than any other district in the country. We are the shop window for what was New Zealand's largest earner of foreign exchange (tourism) and the stats show that those overseas tourists who visited here spent more in New Zealand by a significant margin than those who didn't. For many years our growth rate in resident population, visitor numbers (both domestic and international) and GDP outstripped anywhere else in New Zealand by a country mile.
Yes, we had our growing pains. Roughly six million visitor nights using infrastructure funded by just 23,000 ratepayers certainly caused us some challenges.
However, in general we were coping pretty well and our community, in general, remained a happy lot. Who wouldn't be happy, given where we live?
Then came March 2020. Most businesses here had planned for a downturn at some stage. Maybe the loss of 20 per cent of business along the lines of what happened in the GFC. No one foresaw a complete cessation of business for a period of time and a domestic-only market since then.
When Kiwis were allowed to travel following the lockdown, we were delighted with the response from the domestic market. Particularly over the school holidays and the ski season, our district was host to a good portion of New Zealand. Thank you for coming to see and support us at that time.
Towards the end of last year however, we saw a slowdown. I think after lockdown Kiwis had a desire to go somewhere, but that was satisfied by the third quarter of 2020.
Christmas and New Year were okay, but since early January the tide has well and truly gone out. Last week the owner of a long-established nature-based attraction in the town told me his turnover for February was 91 per cent down on the previous year – this is now common place.
Businesses have restructured themselves, have reduced staff numbers, have attacked their costs (with an axe!) and endeavoured to adapt to a new Covid context, but many are now to the point where they simply can't carry on. Some well-known businesses have either closed or have signalled they won't be around in a month or two.
I'm sure you're asking "so, we've heard most of this before, what is your point Jim?".
Queenstown and Wānaka (and nearby Te Anau, the Glacier towns and all other tourism-dependent destinations for that matter) did not cause the lockdown or the closure of our borders, yet tourism and hospitality are paying the heavy price. Business owners and workers are seeing their livelihoods and their life savings disappearing before their eyes.
The strain on individuals and the community is immense. Business owners here invested heavily, worked hard and in my view are unfairly being ruined.
I'm really disappointed at the number of Kiwis who have taken to Queenstown and tourism generally on their keyboards with the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Many say businesses made good money in the past and should now be able to support themselves. I'm sorry but that's naive.
We've been in this situation for coming up a year with no end in sight. It could be another year before we see any international visitors back in New Zealand. No matter how much money you had in the bank pre-lockdown, it's well and truly gone now.
Likewise, some say that we were focusing on international markets. Yes, we were, but that was our job on behalf of NZ Inc. But let's not forget that pre-Covid, around one third of our three million annual visitors were Kiwis, so we must have been doing something okay.
I've been vocal on behalf of our community asking for some assistance from government. What we were asking for is simply some of the significant contribution we have made in the past, back again for a period of need. A bridge to take us through till a recovery is evident.
Government has signalled a reluctance to do this and I'm not critical of that – there's a massive job to do, and it's their call. I say again though, our community - and all other communities dependent upon tourism and hospitality - are paying a hefty price.
In the absence of government support, I have one suggestion for government: Please give us some surety. Those businesses which can survive need to know a date when we will see the Aussie bubble and internationals return.
I appreciate a ministerial title doesn't come with a crystal ball but giving these hardworking folks something to aim for must be a priority. If they've got a target date, they'll find a way to scrape through, they can plan and cut their cloth accordingly.
Right now, they are staring down a black hole. If by a certain time government estimates that maybe 70 per cent of Kiwis will be vaccinated, surely that is a time to at least allow our Aussie mates to visit.
Finally, to the Kiwis who have been to see us, a heartfelt thank you. To those who haven't, we'd love to see you. Ours is still a beautiful place to visit, with unique experiences to enjoy, and you will be made very welcome by each and every one of us.
• Jim Boult is the Mayor of Queenstown.