Last month, an announcement from the United States confirmed what Ōtautahi Christchurch tourism leaders and visitors over the past couple of years already knew – the city is well and truly back as a destination.
After what has been described as a “hell of a decade” for the city, United Airlines announced it will fly directly to the US this coming summer.
The San Francisco flights will be the first non-stop US service from the southern city in more than two decades and have been hailed as a massive vote of confidence in Christchurch as it re-establishes itself as a key part of New Zealand’s tourism sector.
Scott Callaway, Christchurch Airport general manager of tourism and trade, says United’s flights are a huge win for the city and for the South Island, on top of other long-haul carriers Emirates and Singapore Airlines rebuilding their services.
And instead of being just a gateway to the rest of the South Island, which had been a deliberate strategy during a decade of rebuilding, the city is now a destination, says Callaway.
Selling Christchurch as a recovered city would have been a stretch even two years ago, he says. But it is now at the point where airlines and visitors want to come to the city.
“Christchurch hasn’t been back to its important position in the tourism structure since 2010. That’s 13 years ago and everybody recognises it. We’re on the growth escalator.”
Tourism around the rest of the country had been running hot in the years leading up to the pandemic, but the Christchurch visitor industry had suffered a series of blows for close to a decade leading up to the Covid-19 outbreak. It became known as the shaky city following the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, and was then hit by floods, fires, and in March 2019, the mosque shootings.
Council-funded agency Christchurch NZ says that out of tragedy and hardship, the city has had a new start.
Its chief executive, Ali Adams, echoes that, saying if the city didn’t build its identity, then people would write their own narrative.
“And the gaps were being filled for Christchurch around the earthquake, the shootings, things that have happened that were outside of our control and were unbelievably tragic and challenging. But out of which good things have come.”
Speaking at the Trenz tourism showcase at Te Pae, the city’s spectacular new convention centre, she said Christchurch was a vastly different city than when it last hosted the event 17 years ago.
“We had this amazing opportunity to reimagine what you wanted this city to look and feel like - and you only have to look around the central city to see the scope of ideas, innovation and positivity that came out of what was really a really dark time.”
There have been years of cost blowouts and the pain of rebuilding, and angst and real suffering among residents. Adams doesn’t go into that - she’s looking forward. And for a visitor, a striking city is developing. Although the central city still has many vacant sites, besides the year-old Te Pae (which has generated $50 million in direct economic value in its first year), there are new arts, shopping and entertainment areas and a landmark central city library, Tūranga.
New attractions have been developed on the Port Hills and coming in 2026, there will be a covered sports stadium that will be home to the Crusaders. From stuttering starts, the rebuild of Christ Church Cathedral is underway with completion due in 2027, new and refurbished hotels have opened and inner-city apartments and townhouses have brought new life to the city, which is increasingly oriented around the Avon River.
The river itself has been cleaned up with the removal of 10,000 tonnes of silt and riverside planting, and now runs clear through the CBD.
There are new hot pools, He Puna Taimoana, overlooking the beach at a revitalised New Brighton, and the historic tram network has been extended. Visitors flying in from Auckland enjoy a modern, integrated airport that is a marked contrast to the one they’ve flown from.
A new kind of Garden City
Adams says rebuilding the city’s identity was important to complement the physical reconstruction. The new identity revolves around Christchurch being a place to play, and where life can be balanced.
Her organisation carried out research among close to 15,000 visitors and residents. It found the Garden City label still had legs – but a new twist has been added. “Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people don’t really get where it came from. Some people think it’s old-fashioned,” she says.
Christchurch people still talked about the label, but not just about manicured gardens.
“It’s about living in the city while having the benefits of the countryside,” she says. “I can’t think of a place that gives a better example of that than Christchurch.
“You can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, you can walk five minutes and you can be in nature - you really can have the best of everything.”
Adams says finding balance was critical.
“This is a really tough world. We live in a tough time. We’re facing some incredible global challenges and finding balance has never been more important.”
Just before the earthquakes, the international visitor market was worth about $1.7 billion a year to Christchurch, but dropped steeply and got down to about $1.2b through the middle of the decade. It had just about recovered to pre-quake levels - and then Covid hit.
Now the city is enjoying a recovery as borders have re-opened and lockdowns are a memory. After what has been described by analysts Forsyth Barr as the biggest black swan event since WWII, international tourism is running at about 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Latest Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment figures show that 13 per cent ($123m) of international spending by overseas visitors was in Canterbury in February, second to Auckland, where $253m accounted for 20 per cent of the total. The Canterbury figure is up 2 percentage points on what it was in 2018. During the depths of the pandemic Canterbury domestic visitor spending spiked at times, depending on when Auckland was locked down.
The pandemic’s lighter impact on the southern city compared to Auckland - where most MIQ hotels were located, making the city more vulnerable as the vaccine rollout was delayed - is illustrated by Christchurch Airport being in the black throughout Covid and not having to raise extra capital.
Adams says that for every dollar a resident spends, a visitor spends six.
That drives investment in retail, hospitality and city amenities that residents also get to enjoy, and she says a rising tide floats all boats.
“Tourism has helped to create a thriving, attractive city where people don’t just want to visit, but want to live. They want to invest here, work and play here. And it’s boosted our confidence, our local pride,” says Adams, who was born in Britain but moved to Christchurch 20 years ago.
“It’s a place that I chose to live. I feel unbelievably privileged to be in this role for this amazing city at this period in its history.”
Kath Lowe, head of tourism at Christchurch NZ, says if it applied the Air New Zealand three-stage recovery model - “Survive, Revive and Thrive” - then Ōtautahi’s visitor sector is firmly in the thrive stage, just like the airline.
“We’ve got great infrastructure already and we’ve got more coming online. I feel like we are at the beginning of a really great thrive phase,” she says.
“Not many cities ever get the chance to reimagine what they might look like if they had their chance again. For terrible reasons, we got to do that and we did it really thoughtfully.” The past 13 years, capped off with two acute years during the pandemic, meant it was difficult to use historic data and the city was not chasing total numbers of visitors. How much they spend is more important.
Domestic spending represents about 63 per cent of the total from all visitors.
“The market’s performing well. Through Covid we were very fortunate to be a strong base. There were a number of people coming to visit family as soon as they possibly could. As a large city, we drew a lot of people back as soon as they were able to travel.”
The long-delayed return of Trenz to the city of 390,000 came at the perfect time.
“It has provided us a platform to relaunch ourselves, and the feedback that I am getting from the delegates who are here, is that Christchurch as a destination is exceptional.”
One part of the rebuild is cruise. At Lyttelton, there is a new terminal. About 123,000 passengers made a welcome return to the city during summer, the first time it was able to host them since the earthquakes. It also takes the pressure off Akaroa.
“It really is a game changer. You have no idea how that changes the energy of the city,” said Lowe.
As an example, figures out this week show electronic spending in Lyttelton doubled to $1.8m in the first three months of this year, compared to 2022 when there were no ships.
Comfort for visitors - and locals
Building places to stay was critical following the earthquakes, and Rydges Latimer was one of the first new hotels. On Latimer Square, the hotel opened in early 2014 as the landmark Rydges curved tower awaited earthquake strengthening. An announcement on its future is close.
Rydges Latimer general manager Craig Wood said domestic demand had started to slow but the international outlook was bright, especially with direct air links to the big-spending US market.
“We’re still getting a great business mix that is coming through the doors.”
Christchurch-born and bred, Wood said he was proud of the role played in recovery by the 175-room hotel, with its popular Bloody Mary’s restaurant attracting big numbers of locals in search of somewhere comforting to dine.
“I think that was a part of that bounce-back to Christchurch. I think it’s a great message for the brand to be seen as one of the first hotels to open.”
The airport’s Callaway acknowledges the empty sites in the central city, which can be confronting and surprising. “I think people notice the bomb sites, but every city has them. If you drive through any city, something’s being knocked down or something’s being built. It’s a sign of progress.”
The city is now young in many places because of the rebuild, but he says its population is more mature.
“There’s been a huge maturity built up over these hard times. The 10 years of hell might have been good [for that]. We’re a more sophisticated city,” he says.
One example of this is in promotion of the city. Rugby and Crusaders aren’t front, left and centre as they may have been previously.
“The Crusaders, I think, are part of the beating heart of Christchurch and they’re so successful that everyone is proud of them. But I think we have matured in time to where we’re not just a rugby city,” says Callaway.
Tourism boss Lowe says rugby is very much part of the fabric of Christchurch, but there are many other layers being celebrated and promoted.
“There are a number of sporting events and activities that are also important that also add to the fabric of Christchurch as a destination and bring a different energy and a different mix of people to visit.”
The SailGP event in its spectacular Lyttelton Harbour setting this year was an example of broadening the appeal of sport.
“It brought a whole different type of visitor which is fantastic, and from a community perspective was also incredibly rich.”
Sudima has three hotels in the city, and chief operating officer Les Morgan says Te Pae has been a catalyst for supercharging the central city, while the buildup of air services was being felt at airport properties.
“It’s growing nice and steadily, there’s good-quality people coming through in terms of diversity of countries. Domestic activity has been really strong - it always has been.”
From Auckland, he says he looks at Christchurch with some envy.
“I think they have their tourism strategy down pat. They’ve got good infrastructure now and they’re headed in the right direction. They seem to be very tight in terms of their focus,” he says.
Riwai Grace operates Āmiki Tours with his whānau, and launched the guided walk business just before the March, 2020 nationwide lockdown. He’s known tough times before. He was a firefighter when the earthquakes struck.
The charismatic guide’s resilience and pride in the new parts of the city shine through on a walk. But he’ll also point out the still-broken bits.
“It is really important to acknowledge them but we’ve got to move forward. We were unlucky but lucky, we had a blank canvas.”
Not a numbers game
Just as Christchurch had time to rethink its identity in the years following the quakes, South Island-based powerhouse Ngāi Tahu Tourism used the pandemic years to review all its tourism experiences and understand how the businesses affect the environment and our economy.
“We made the call that chasing the numbers was not leading us in the right direction for achieving what really were our business values,” said its general manager Jolanda Cave at Trenz.
“While we’re getting the numbers through the door, we weren’t living up to the values that we as an iwi-led organisation were committed to.”
She said this led to cutting jetboat operating hours for Shotover Jet. That allowed staff to work together for the day, meant boats had less impact on the river and reduced their carbon footprint – something that will be accelerated with the electrification of its fleet throughout the country.
It is cutting numbers on its Dart River operation and there had been changes at its Hollyford Wilderness Experience.
“We’ve used the off-season to invest in improved infrastructure. We’ve also spent time to integrate cultural stories and experience, providing our guests with a truly unique Kiwi experience.”
She said getting higher yields from more premium experiences was a five-year journey.