Million dollar boosts to Hawke's Bay's economy, thousands of jobs, and even flights into the region could be thrown into jeopardy over a proposed Hawke's Bay Tourism funding cut, the agency says.
Hawke's Bay Tourism promotes the region as a tourism destination, and has ramped up efforts in the past three years due to an increase in funding through the Hawke's Bay Regional Council.
In this time, an additional 470,000 visitor nights have been spent in the region, at least 880 new jobs have been generated, and direct visitor spending is tracking at 6 per cent annual growth.
But there are fears this momentum could be lost - as the council plans to focus more on its environmental priorities, proposing a cut to the agency's funding by $1.8 million over three years in its Long Term Plan 2018-2028.
This has been met with strong opposition from the tourism industry, local businesses, and even the region's mayors, but the council argues after a "dramatic" funding boost in 2015, it's time for the multimillion-dollar sector to stand on its own.
Hawke's Bay Tourism general manager Annie Dundas said over time a cut could hit businesses in the pocket, and mean the downsizing of annual events which contribute to the local economy, resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars over time.
Visitor spending hit $630m last year and was predicted to be at $830m by 2021.
The first impact of a cut would be advertising, limiting Hawke's Bay Tourism's ability to promote the region nationally, and internationally. This in turn could result in fewer visitors and less spending at tourism operators, restaurants, hotels, and local businesses.
The bigger impact would be felt in years two and three, as the growth pushed by tourism promotion really slowed, impacting the agency's goal of creating a sustainable, year round tourism industry.
"Six years ago we had a really big peak and then everything stopped in March and kind of started again in October. We're now seeing April's strong, May's strong.
"You've got to give people a reason to come, we've got lovely scenery, and lovely wineries and lovely stories to tell ... but you've got to keep reminding people because other regions in New Zealand have got a lot of that too."
Reduced funding could limit the development of new events for the region, and support of more recent additions to the tourism calendar - like the Air New Zealand marathon – which brings about 14,000 to the region.
"I've talked to some of the wineries and they've talked about it being as big as the Mission weekend," Ms Dundas said. "Something like that in May makes a business profitable in that month, whereas before they wouldn't."
Events already established on the Hawke's Bay calendar – the Art Deco Festival, F.A.W.C!– still received huge support from Hawke's Bay Tourism, but did not need as much promotion as some of the newer ventures.
A drop in funding might not have much of an impact on the cruise market - which brings up to $21m to the region's economy – as the industry was "very beholden" to their customers, so picked destinations based on customer feedback.
"The bigger impact is if things start to change too much, some of our airline partners will look a little differently perhaps at Hawke's Bay.
"Air New Zealand has been a huge supporter or Art Deco, F.A.W.C!, the marathon. We'd hate to see anything happen that would jeopardise the frequency of flights we have, and the competition we have into Hawke's Bay."
There was no denying Hawke's Bay Tourism exceeded all expectations since its 2015 funding boost, council chairman Rex Graham said. However "there's a feeling that tourism's not in our core competencies. We need to do some very serious stuff to correct the damage that has been done to the environment."
The majority of councillors felt the tourism industry had a "very big leg up from ratepayers" over the past three years, which other industries had not. Halving the funding over three years gave the agency time to seek assistance from the commercial sector and businesses that directly benefited from promotion of the region.
"Tourism is just like any other industry in Hawke's Bay, albeit it is the biggest industry in Hawke's Bay and a substantial contributor to our economy.
"Nevertheless it is serviced by the private sector, and so a majority of councillors believe they should find ways to fund their generic advertising, and they shouldn't be asking ratepayers to continue to do this."
This was echoed by councillor Tom Belford, who questioned the appropriateness of such a high funding for one sector.
"We don't make any similar kind of investment in any other sector. The industry has behaved as though cutting back on tourism funding is going to make ... all the attractions that make people visit the region disappear. But the story of Hawke's Bay gets told in many, many ways."
Given the number of businesses, and sectors which benefited from tourism, Mr Belford said they should "absolutely" be helping finance the agency.
"We're given this picture that the tourism industry is flush, it is growing by leaps and bounds. And yet, it can only seem to drum up a couple of hundred thousand dollars from its own pocket to finance what everybody seems to believe is the silver bullet of tourism, Hawke's Bay Tourism.
"This is not the kind of subsidy we provide to anybody else in the region. I think the idea that this is a sustainable level of funding forever for this one sector is naïve thinking."
They have also argued more funding to solve issues with the environment would be good for tourism.
"No one in the industry is advocating for not protecting our environment," Ms Dundas said. "Most operators rely on our natural environment to deliver their tourism product, it's of no interest to us to have dirty rivers.
"What the industry is trying to say is it's not an 'and/or', there's a balance and it should be 'and/and'. We have to look after our environment, but let's not jeopardise our economic good, and an economic growth platform for the region is part of that."
Mr Belford said if resources were there, it could be an "and/and" situation, however "I feel we need every dollar that we can appropriately ask of ratepayers to put into that [environmental] priority".
"The environment is the golden egg of Hawke's Bay, not Hawke's Bay Tourism. If we keep putting crap in our rivers, in the Ahuriri estuary , and crap in our drinking water, how long is tourism going to be a growth industry in Hawke's Bay?"
The overall proposed rate increase in the upcoming financial year is 19 per cent, with 13 per cent of this toward environmental priorities. The tourism funding cut would reduce rates by 1.6 per cent.