The Covid-19 pandemic had made the future of Whanganui tourist businesses especially uncertain - with some facing closure or drastic change. But with inter-regional travel allowed to resume in level 2 operators now have hope.
Laurel Stowell reports.
The tourism sector has been hard hit by Covid-19 restrictions, with most hotels and motels in complete shutdown.
But the Whanganui region is less affected than some because most of its visitors are from New Zealand rather than overseas.
One exception is River Valley Adventures, on the Rangitikei River near Taihape. Only 10 per cent of its guests are Kiwi, owner Brian Megaw said. He is looking for new ways to use his asset.
In this region much of our tourism also happens in summer. Many businesses are about to begin their annual winter shutdown.
The ski industry is an exception, usually opening on Mount Ruapehu in June. This year it will open, but in exactly what form has still to be decided.
Skiers at the two Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) ski areas are 80 per cent New Zealanders, CEO Jono Dean said - but 80 per cent of season pass holders live outside the district.
Ski operators were keen to hear the detail of the Government's level 2 restrictions. Now they are scrambling to decide what they can do.
The Ruapehu District has the biggest tourism presence in the region, with about 650 businesses contributing 20 per cent of district GDP, Visit Ruapehu manager Jo Kennedy said.
Visitors spent a total of $202 million in the district in 2019. Half were New Zealanders and the other half overseas visitors. In summer cycling and walking are nearly as busy as the winter skiing.
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Visit Ruapehu is preparing for ski campaigns, and Kennedy is cautiously optimistic.
RAL, a limited-purpose public benefit entity, would incur an unacceptable level of debt if it did not open at all this winter, board chairman Murray Gribben said.
Usually 600-700 winter RAL staff are needed, more than half of them from overseas.
This year's skiers will all be Kiwi, unless a transtasman bubble admits Australian skiers without imposing a quarantine.
Under level 2 outdoor gatherings are limited to 100 people - but RAL hopes to be able to work around that.
"We're still working with SAANZ [our industry association] for clarification around mass gatherings and congregations and how that might affect ski area operations," Dean said.
The ski areas will run at a loss if they are limited to very small numbers.
Sam Clarkson, the owner of Edge to Edge ski hire business at Whakapapa Village, was waiting last week to find out whether his five staff will have a job this winter.
"It's impossible to tell right now. We are all just sitting here in a daze," he said.
Ruapehu Mayor Don Cameron said inter-regional travel will be good for the region's tourism operators because "we do know some people are really on the bones of their backsides".
The lack of tourists could cost the district a lot of jobs, Cameron said, with unemployment going as high as 16 per cent and restaurants and cafes struggling to survive.
But if Government infrastructure funding kicks in there could be work extending tracks on the Mountains to Sea cycleway or adding facilities at the Turoa ski area.
Ruapehu has two cycle trails, and social distancing would be especially difficult on the busy Old Coach Road near Ohakune.
Other businesses cater to people canoeing the Whanganui River. Taumarunui Canoe Hire and Jetboat Tours puts 20 to 100 people on it every day during the summer season.
Owner Karen Hawkless said it usually closes down in May. Its customers are 60 per cent Kiwi and it may feel the lack of overseas visitors next season.
However she is already getting bookings for next summer, and said more New Zealanders could be travelling then because they won't be able to go overseas.
In the Whanganui District visitors contribute $133m to GDP every year, Whanganui and Partners strategic lead - visitor industries Paul Chaplow said.
About 80 per cent are New Zealanders, and of the overseas visitors about a third are Australian.
Chaplow said the return of inter-regional travel is a shot in the arm. It was not in earlier level 2 thinking, and the tourist industry lobbied hard for it.
Whanganui's most obvious tourist attraction is the Waimarie paddlesteamer, which had to finish its summer season six weeks early when the lockdown began.
Only manager Phil Pollero and volunteers will be working over the winter, and he anticipates a full season next summer.
Other Whanganui attractions include the Durie Hill Elevator, MV Wairua, galleries, museum, Bason Botanic Gardens and Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics.
About 5 per cent of Whanganui jobs are in tourism and it is hard to say how many are at risk.
Chaplow said he has not heard of any businesses closing, but some were quite stressed.
"The biggest impact will be on our accommodation sector, who are effectively shut down. They have considerable monthly lease arrangements - most are well over $10,000 a month."
He's heard some leasees have come to 50:50 arrangements with property owners.
Whanganui tourism grew last summer, which puts it in a better position to recover after the lockdown, he said.
The Rangitikei District has cycling options and Rangitikei River tourism. Its Mokai Gravity Canyon adventure business shut down in 2016.
Awastone, on the Rangitikei near Mangaweka, offers accommodation and rafting. Owner Paul Eames said 75 to 80 per cent of customers were New Zealanders.
Social distancing is not possible in the accommodation or on rafting trips and the business has been shut for six weeks, with staff getting the Government's wage subsidy.
"They're just doing gardening on a limited basis to keep them earning something, but we aren't going to be able to do that much longer if we don't have any customers."
The Awastone seasonal slowdown begins in June, and Eames is not sure if the cafe will be open after that. At the moment he's thinking to do nothing until September.
"We can see that we are going to face 18 months of hardship, but I think our business will still operate at full levels. We just won't make any money.
"In rural New Zealand you have years where you don't make any money, no matter what you do."
River Valley Adventures, further upstream, has fewer options because most of owner Brian Megaw's customers have been from overseas. The business is about to close down until October and he's wondering what it will do when it opens again.
Having mainly New Zealand visitors will be difficult, because most will only come at weekends and during holidays. Social distancing will be impossible for people in the lodge. Some families may be attracted by multi-day rafting and horse riding trips.
"We are trying to avoid redundancies. We don't know whether we can do that yet. We don't want to come out of winter with an enormous debt loading," he said.
One possibility may be selling food the River Valley chefs cook in its commercial kitchen, using vegetables from its large organic garden.
"We are looking at current assets that can be repurposed for something else."