Kaikōura, the tourist mecca where towering mountains meet an ocean awash with whales and playful dolphins, was just recovering from the giant 2016 earthquake - and then Covid-19 struck. Herald journalists Kurt Bayer and George Heard report from a struggling seaside paradise.
Dark clouds lingered low over the Kaikōura ranges on the day the Tourism Minister came to town.
The Esplanade – the main drag – was gloomy on an eerie still day, where the squawk of seagulls hung sharply in the air.
Empty car parks, boarded-up cafes and shops.
For those tourism operators still open, business is stiflingly slow. International visitors, which made up to 80-90 per cent of trade for some, are gone.
The normally bustling spot is a ghostly version of itself, reminiscent of the shaky aftermath of the magnitude-7.8 tremor that ripped through Kaikōura on November 14, 2016, tearing down mountainsides, ripping up roads, and uplifting the seabed.
It took the town, where 40 per cent of jobs are tourism-related, years to recover from the natural disaster. For some, it was ongoing.
And then last year, disaster struck again. The global Covid-19 pandemic arrived on New Zealand shores and the shutters went up.
Before Covid-19, tourism was New Zealand's largest export industry, worth about $40 billion a year and directly employing 8.4 per cent (229,566 people) of the national workforce.
Without international visitors, New Zealand is facing a revenue gap of $12.9b a year.
Over the past 12 months, Kaikōura tour operators have tried to tweak their businesses to target the only available market – Kiwis.
And they have helped.
Ngāi Tahu owned and operated Whale Watch Kaikōura, one of four Kaikōura businesses boosted by the Government's Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme funding, getting up to $1.5 million, has increased its domestic numbers by 100 per cent.
Along the Esplanade, down from the shops and alongside the quietly-lapping shore and walkway arches of whale jawbones, are parked rows of white campervans.
The grey nomads are helping tick the town over.
Cambridge retirees Ray and Judi Kelly sit in their campervan, emblazoned with "Hasta la Vista", enjoying the view.
They have spent the six weeks touring the South Island visiting family and friends.
So far, they've been everywhere: Blenheim, Nelson, Greymouth, Christchurch, Lake Tekapo, Dunedin, Gore, Invercargill, the Catlins.
Ray Kelly, 76, reckons "half the North Island must be down here".
They're aware how much tourist towns like Kaikōura have suffered over the past year.
"That's the reason we're here," Judi says.
"We thought we'd stop off for a bit and say we really appreciate what they have done."
Towns like Kaikōura are happy to have them. They will take any visitors they can get.
Lynette Buurman of dolphin watching tour operator Encounter Kaikōura, says events of the past year have been "catastrophic".
The business, which had a 90 per cent reliance on overseas visitors for its tours, had nearly recovered from the quakes when the border closed.
Hasty decisions were made, cutting staff, ending seasonal contracts early, operations scaled right back.
"It's been so confronting again," Buurman says.
"But in a different way [to the quakes], in a much bigger way because it wasn't just Kaikōura this time."
Murray Hamilton, operations manager at whale watching business Air Kaikōura, says they've taken a 85 per cent hit on its business after losing international travellers.
They have adapted and introduced flights to Wellington through winter months and focused on flight instructing.
The only help they have received from the Government is the wage subsidy.
And if they're going to survive the looming winter, Hamilton says they're going to need more support.
"If we don't get some more support, this winter will be extremely difficult for us to survive and that's the truth of it.
"There's only a certain amount of people who want to go whale watching in New Zealand."
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash, who visited local operators this week, knows Kaikōura has been hard-hit by the pandemic – a place so reliant on international visitors.
"They've done it tough, there's no doubt about that," he admits.
He believes the Government is doing enough to help tourism businesses cope, pointing to various funding schemes available.
Nash has repeatedly said there is an emphasis on attracting high-end, big spenders when the border reopens.
Advice he's received from airlines is that it will take "three to four years at least" before pre-Covid levels of air traffic return to New Zealand.
And it will be expensive to get here. That's why the top end of travellers is being targeted.
"These are the people who will get up our tourism spend and drive value growth in our tourism industry," Nash says.
But Buurman, who is also chairwoman of regional tourism group Destination Kaikōura, says they rely on a broad range of customers.
The backpacker or budget traveller, she says, is "very much part of our customer mix".
They're all hanging out for a safe travel bubble with Australia.
Nash stressed to operators this week that the Government is very keen to make it happen.
Buurman and Hamilton, like others spoken to by the Herald, feel the time has come for a cautious border easing to happen.
The Government needs to be "bold, courageous and confident" in making the call, Buurman says.
"I feel a hesitancy but at some point we need to test the waters and respond accordingly.
"That's the only way we're going to build back out of this terrible crisis."
She's been impressed with the Government's handling of Covid-19 to date, but says the crisis is beginning to bite tourism business hard.
Buurman called on Nash, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to provide more clarity on how they can recover.
For Nash, visits to struggling places like Kaikōura are helpful in making the big decisions.
"There's some hard conversations to be had in Te Anau, Queenstown and [Kaikōura]," he says.
"There really are people who have done it tough and I really acknowledge that.
"And hearing their stories first-hand is very important and when I got back and talk to my Cabinet colleagues."