Northland's tourism industry has been hit hard by ongoing travel restrictions due to Covid-19. Reporter Jenny Ling finds out what they desperately need to get back on track.
Northland tourism operators and small towns reliant on holidaymakers have their hopes pinned on a transtasman travel bubble to save an industry decimated by Covid-19.
And while business owners have been slightly buoyed by a $400 million boost to tourism and an extension to the wage subsidy scheme announced in last Thursday's Budget, they say it's going to take a lot more investment to keep them afloat.
Salt Air chief executive Grant Harnish was glad to get the green light to operate as the country moved down to level 2 last week, after receiving guidelines from the Civil Aviation Authority.
But "bold decisions" are needed by the Government to save Northland's tourism industry, and a transtasman bubble is critical, he said.
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"Aussies are great spenders and great travellers, they're a real dream.
"As soon as we can figure out how to do it, it needs to be done. We can't wait or there'll be too many casualties."
Harnish, who runs scenic helicopter flights out of Paihia, was underwhelmed with the Government's $400m Tourism Recovery Fund, which many have criticised for being light on detail.
"Though the extended wage subsidy was great, it doesn't appear to have hit the average tourism business," he said.
"Tourism was one of the biggest losers out of the whole thing."
The Far North has "huge challenges to face", Harnish said.
He's aware of two businesses in Paihia alone "that at this point are wondering whether it's worthwhile reopening given how light the numbers will be".
"New Zealand tourism is fantastic, but not everyone is set up to do just domestic, and New Zealanders mainly travel on weekends and school holidays.
"I am positive moving forward, but the Government needs to lift its game dramatically if they want tourism to have half a chance."
Earlier this month Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally agreed to begin work on a transtasman Covid-19 safe travel zone.
Business Paihia chairwoman Robyn Stent said opening the borders between the two countries is "absolutely imperative".
"If the New Zealand and Aussie borders open, businesses have got so much more of a chance," she said.
"The region is so dependent on tourism, particularly Paihia."
Stent said most Paihia business association members would meet the 50 per cent reduction in revenue required to get the extra eight weeks of wage subsidies.
While positive, it's still a case of "wait and see", she said.
"Some of the bigger players may not start again till October. The smaller operators say they will be available if people want, but whether they can survive is another question. At least the subsidy is giving them some breathing space.
"Everyone is treading water and hoping it'll work out."
Visitor spending contributes $1.1 billion each year to the Northland economy, with domestic visitors accounting for 76 per cent of the spend.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa is estimating 200,000 tourism workers could lose their jobs due to the impact of Covid-19. It's not yet clear how many jobs have been lost in Northland.
TIA chief executive Chris Roberts said the Budget package "will not be enough to prevent significant job losses across the industry".
"In terms of immediate survival, the measures announced today are welcome but further initiatives will be required in the months and years ahead," he said.
Northland tourism leader Jeroen Jongejans, who runs Dive! Tutukaka, said it would "still be tricky" for tourism, even as the country moves down alert levels.
There are now lots of safety issues to consider, he said, and though level 1 would be more relaxed "it won't be the same as it used to be".
Fifty per cent of Jongejans' business was from overseas visitors and he said loss of this customer base is going to "significantly affect our business".
"Your income is reduced but the outgoings are the same, so it becomes marginal. In a couple of years' time, we will see the borders open again, meanwhile we will have fewer customers coming in."
Jongejans was pleased with the wage subsidy extension but said it may need to be extended even further.
"It's good to see some targeted assistance – but it's an ongoing target. More needs to be done."
He was also keen for the Australian and New Zealand borders to open.
"Smart campaigns with Auckland and the transtasman bubble will be the saviour for a lot of businesses," Jongejans said.
"Tourism has poured billions of tax dollars into the New Zealand economy over the last 20 years so it's important for the Government to make sure these businesses stay alive."
A new Horizon Research survey conducted between April 28 and 30 found 1.2million Kiwis plan to take a domestic holiday in the next 7-12 months.
It's great news for the Bay of Islands, with around 823,300 people saying they want to holiday there within the next year, followed by 812,500 people who would like to visit Queenstown-Wanaka.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds opened its full range of tours and cultural performances on Saturday with a raft of Covid-19 safety measures in place.
Along with contact tracing procedures, tour numbers have been limited, seating arranged to ensure safe distancing, and hongi and handshakes removed from pōwhiri and cultural performances.
Treaty Grounds chief executive Greg McManus said the Pacific Islands should be included in any future border openings.
"The prospect of an Aussie, New Zealand, Pacific Island travel bubble would help the cruise industry and that would be good for Bay of Islands tourism.
"We know there's not going to be international visitors for a long time."
The International Air Transport Association recently predicted overseas travel won't return to normal until 2023.
And while there have been many horror cruise ship stories of outbreaks, deaths and people being stranded overseas due to coronavirus, McManus said the future for the cruise industry looks bright.
"What we're hearing is booking for cruises for next year and the year after are already strong," McManus said.
"It seems people are not put off going on cruises, they're maybe delaying them but they're not put off.
"I expect the cruise market to come back quite strongly once it's safe to travel again."
Irwin Wilson, cruise ship co-ordinator for port authority Far North Holdings, said there 69 cruise ships had been scheduled to visit the Bay of Islands last season. But due to Covid-19, only 54 made it through before the Government banned them from visiting New Zealand ports.
If the transtasman bubble eventuates, Wilson said he expects to see some ships in the next season.
"Things will bounce back, depending on when borders open up to other countries. When that will be and the number at the moment is unclear. We have to sit and wait."
New Zealand Cruise Association chief executive Kevin O'Sullivan said domestic and transtasman tourism must include cruises.
He expects to soon hear whether the cruise ship ban put in place by the Government, which spanned from mid-March to June 30 – will be continued or lifted.
"If we can get cruise ships coming to New Zealand from Australia, and fly Aussies in and use our domestic passengers as well, it will give us a good leg-up for beginning cruising again," he said.
O'Sullivan said Australian and New Zealand passengers make up a large proportion of the country's cruise market: 50 per cent of cruise passengers on routes around New Zealand are Australian and 15 per cent are Kiwis.
"We need public support to make sure the cruise industry recommences because it's a big part of tourism economy particularly in the smaller regions," he said.
"There's a big backlog of cruise passengers who had bookings and cancellations and are keen to get back into cruising again."