New Zealand tourism could take seven years or longer to recover if borders don't reopen until 2022 and Australia opens up in the meantime, an inbound operators' group says.
The Tourism Export Council warns that its members may be able to limp to October next year without overseas long-haul visitors, but further delays would be disastrous.
While the tourism industry had been resilient, chief executive Lynda Keene said it was critical there was a phased, safe return of long-haul international visitors.
Her members market tourist operators overseas and the number of members had fallen from 71 to 54 since the pandemic struck, wiping out inbound tourism.
"Businesses on bare bones operations will just make it until October 2021. If the Government does not reopen the border until 2022, the outcome will be very different. It will take five to seven years for international tourism to recover … and it might not," she said.
Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment figures for the year to end of October (with takes in nine months of Covid border restrictions) shows total tourism spending falling 17 per cent to $24.7 billion.
International tourists spent $12.9b in New Zealand last year.
Keene said inbound tourist operators needed more Government support. In submissions to a long list of incoming ministers, the council had called for operational grants for accommodation, transport and other non-recipients of funding from the Strategic Assets Protection Programme.
"We will also request a specific tourism sector wage subsidy for businesses that can prove pre-Covid they had more than 70 per cent of business from international visitors," he said.
"It is vital that staff and IP is retained in the industry to ensure when the time is right and the border reopens, we can activate the millions of dollars being held in the system to become real in the form of visitors on the ground in New Zealand."
The council is also lobbying for GST relief and for the Department of Conservation to extend the zero concession fee policy until the border reopens to long-haul markets.
It was also lobbying for the allocation of some of the unspent visitor and environmental levies in areas where there were some pinch points.
"We will also suggest to Government a number of intention dates needed to ensure the recovery of the international tourism sector," Keene said.
Tourism New Zealand says feedback from its overseas offices showed there was desire to visit this country but limited demand.
"Nobody is booking yet because there is too much uncertainty. The growing trend is the request for flexibility. As borders start to open, it will be the new normal," commercial director Renè de Monchy said.
The Government agency was continuing to promote New Zealand overseas.
"The desire we're building now is for future travel. That is going to be more challenging as other markets open up - that's going to be a really important part of our planning," he said.
"New Zealand's brand positioning is strong - we have managed Covid pretty well but as borders open and vaccines become available it will be the next challenge and harder for us to stand out."
Operators needed to be Covid-ready. When tourists did return, they would be concerned about health and safety protocols such as contact tracing, cutting queues, contactless transactions and hospital facilities.
Another speaker at the Tourism Export Council symposium, Justin Tighe-Umbers, from the Board of Airline Representatives, said New Zealand couldn't afford to be too selective with visitors in the future.
Asked about Tourism Minister Stuart Nash's strategy of targeting high-value visitors, Tighe-Umbers said the country needed to be targeting all markets.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government understood the impact of the pandemic on a range of industries in New Zealand, and has provided some support to them.
"New Zealand has an elimination strategy for Covid-19, which to date has been highly successful.''
There were very few other countries that are anywhere near being genuinely low risk, from a health perspective.
"Providing an effective managed isolation and quarantine system to keep New Zealanders safe remains a critical part of that approach. How we do this in future, however, could change as we are continue to learn more and as situations change overseas.''
There were real constraints on adding new facilities that have to be considered carefully.
These include the essential workforce who care for and protect returnees, and the additional resources that would be required to audit infection controls at any bespoke facilities.
"We are also looking at opportunities for quarantine-free travel on a case by case basis and we are actively doing so with Australia and the Cook Islands right now. Other options being considered include quarantine periods of different lengths, depending on risk,'' Hipkins said.
Contact tracing and testing regimes were very strong but need to ensure the demands were balanced with other demands on the country's health system.