The lure of a transtasman bubble and a reinvigorated hospitality sector may lead backpackers away from Central Otago orchards and vineyards, industry leaders warn.
For a sector already faced with critical labour shortages, the consequences of that could be dire if the long-awaited travel bubble opens as scheduled on Monday.
With hopes of recognised seasonal employer workers from the Pacific being allowed into New Zealand in time to complete the 2020-21 season evaporating, the loss of backpackers before the season was complete would strike another blow.
Seasonal Solutions chief executive Helen Axby said the loss of backpackers to the warmer climes of Australia was a real possibility.
Coupled with that would be increased demand from the tourism sector, which could draw backpackers out of Central Otago and into the Queenstown Lakes District.
"A reboot of tourism and hospitality activities could prove tempting.
"I mean, I am looking at the rain out my window now and thinking, who would want to be picking apples when they could be serving coffee?"
Winter was approaching, and the lustre of working outside was wearing off.
As a result, an already stretched labour force for the horticulture sector would only be spread thinner, Axby said.
Grape Vision owner and Central Otago Winegrowers Association past-president James Dicey echoed her sentiments.
"I have heard of the backpackers on my crew talking about exactly that and going to Australia because they've been here for a year — one arrived two days before lockdown."
While the bubble could mean backpackers leaving for Australia, he hoped it could mean two-way traffic, and backpackers marooned across the Tasman coming to New Zealand.
"I like to think there's a lot of backpackers in Australia that would be keen to come here."
His biggest concern lay with Queenstown.
"Most Aussies go to Queenstown and it will be opening up a lot more, so the biggest risk is the hospitality industry in Queenstown," Dicey said.
Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan had been pushing for MIQ beds to be opened for more recognised seasonal employer workers late last month, but had found the Government's silence frustrating.
"It is quite disappointing that I've not had any response and my plan was to wait and see what the Government said but it hasn't worked out all that well," he said.
The situation continued to be critical, Cadogan said.
"The situation here now is that it's not a matter of whether we are going to have money rot on the ground, it's a question of how much we are going to lose of a crop that is ready to be picked, packed, turned into wine or whatever and sent overseas to make the country money."
— Additional reporting RNZ