Te Tai Tokerau is one of only two regions in the country that saw an increase in visitor spending over the last year, according to recently released figures by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE).
"I think Northland's got a massive amount of natural attraction and beauty. Northland was a real trendsetter for being able to pull domestic tourism activity in," said senior economist for Infometrics Brad Olsen.
Estimates of expenditure on tourism from both domestic and other consumers released by MBIE saw 2 per cent year-to-year growth in Northland, with a 10 per cent increase compared to February last year.
Total visitor spending for the year was at $538 million, over 50 per cent of what it was pre-Covid 19. Gisborne was the only other region that saw growth in visitor spending during the same period, whilst regions such as Auckland and Wellington saw substantial decreases.
"Essentially, Northland's position at the top of the North Island with an Auckland market very close by and people wanting to make a trip away, but not wanting to make a massive time commitment, did mean that Northland was well positioned," Olsen said.
"If you're an Aucklander going away for the weekend, the South Island probably isn't on your radar, whereas Northland and the Coromandel probably are," said chief executive officer of the Northland Chamber of Commerce Stephen Smith.
"Our research highlighted that drive-based locations have performed better than fly-based tourism locations across the country. Northland illustrates it quite clearly," said Olsen.
According to Smith, Te Tai Tokerau has traditionally performed well with the domestic tourist market and this has helped to carry the region through the pandemic.
"Domestic tourism is our bag, traditionally. About 70 per cent of tourism in the North is domestic ... It's different in the Bay of Islands. They very much cater towards international tourism," Smith said.
One local operator who has felt the effects of the pandemic more than most is Dive! Tutukaka, a full-service dive charter operating in the Poor Knights Islands area. Usually heavily reliant on the international market, the company has been forced to adapt in order to survive.
"We used to have three dive boats and one snorkel boat, now we have one dive boat and three snorkel boats ... We've all learnt to adapt and to be patient because there are a lot of things we can't influence," said the director of Dive! Tutukaka, Jeroen Jongejans.
"Auckland is our main market at the moment. The weekends when we don't have a lockdown in Auckland, we are motoring ... Kiwi visitors have significantly made up for the lack of international visitors."
As well as owning Dive! Tutukaka, Jongejans also sits on a number of local tourism-based boards and groups, as well as the Northland Chamber of Commerce. He says the region's offerings for visitors is growing and hopes this will continue to help increase the number of people visiting the region.
"As a region, we've been investing in different products and experiences. We've got the Twin Coast Discovery Highway where people can experience a range of really fascinating things. There's Manea – Footprints of Kupe in Hokianga, Waitangi, Cape Brett, walkways, cycleways, there's a variety of experiences for domestic and international visitors," Jongejans said.
The effects of the growth in visitor spending in the region means that other businesses not strictly targeted towards tourism have also had a helping hand in staying afloat and keeping people employed.
"Obviously, Northland has got a strong primary sector which is helping to keep the economy moving but the tourism sector boost will be keeping more people employed," Olsen said.
While the growth in visitor spending is a positive sign for Te Tai Tokerau, experts warn that it is unlikely to continue heading into winter, unless operators are able to improve their overall offerings and experiences provided to customers.
"I think there is some tweaking that could be done there to make sure there is wider appeal throughout the year," Olsen said.
"Make the experience exemplary, which means quite a number of businesses have to step up. Many of them are extraordinarily good but an equal number of them are a little bit average ... I think you'd have to be very optimistic to see that [growth] continuing through the winter," Smith said.
However, visitors to the region that the Advocate spoke to have had positive experiences overall and say they will be back again.
"Last night was our third night and usually we don't stay somewhere for that long," said Peter Hall, who has been travelling through Northland with his partner, Alison McClelland.
The couple are originally from Wellington and have been exploring the coastline and visiting a number of local attractions. They say friendly locals, a range of activities on offer, and a lack of international tourists have drawn them back to the North.
"We like beaches, such as Tutukaka. We've been there before and we're looking forward to going back this time with the lack of international tourists," Hall said.
"Walking past people on the Hatea River Loop and being greeted by everyone, we don't get that in Wellington."
With a two-way travel bubble with Australia and the Pacific Islands not far away, Northland is well positioned to capitalise on an influx of overseas tourists, if it can continue to position itself as a prime destination for tourism in Aotearoa.
"We've got a great opportunity to grow but we need to look at offering different products too," Jongejans said.