It was set to be a bumper season for tourism in Whanganui. Figures for January were up almost 20 per cent on previous years. Then along came a global pandemic and we all know what happened next.
But in Whanganui, the impact on tourism hasn't been as bad as it could've been.
"We are not Rotorua or Queenstown, which have been hollowed out entirely from the income they would normally get," said Whanganui strategic lead for tourism Paul Chaplow. "We've got a really nicely diversified economy.
"The visitor industry and tourism does play a part of it and it will continue to do so, but because of our broad-spectrum economy, I think we will come through this pretty well."
It is estimated that currently, tourism contributes around $133 million to Whanganui's GDP, and it is normally busy through to Easter.
"Unlike the Northern Hemisphere, we are coming into our quiet time," Chaplow said. "They are heading into their peak season and they have no income at all so, timing wise, if it was ever going to happen for us, now is a good time."
The region's economic development arm, Whanganui and Partners, will be working closely with Tourism New Zealand, shifting the marketing focus entirely to domestic travel.
"It's a brave new world for us and as far as tourism now, we're not even sure quite how to message the domestic market," Chaplow said.
"Anecdotally the type of [feedback] we're getting is real surprise when they get here. I think that speaks to the perception generally, Whanganui has been slightly more negative than positive. But I think we are shifting that dial now, which is great to see."
After decades spent battling negative perceptions, the region once known as a hot holiday spot is experiencing a resurgence, offering an increasingly sought after "unique Kiwi experience".
The river made world news in 2017 when it was granted the legal status of person - a story the region is keen to tell.
"We are actually investigating an eco-cultural hub to tell the Te Awa Tupua story, which I think is really significant. The initial thinking was that it's of significance to internationals, but there's no reason why the domestic market wouldn't be interested in that story as well."
Like the rest of NZ's tourism industry, the region will take some time to recover, with some sectors hit harder than others, particularly accommodation providers.
"If you own a motel or hotel, often you've got a monthly lease that's expected to be paid. It can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. We want to make sure that our current providers can survive through this time."
The Regional Business Partner Network is providing free support to local businesses with advice from accounting through to marketing.
"We will support them in terms of how to look at the future of tourism and what we think is going to appeal to our domestic market, and the way people view this whole industry from now on."
Businesses can access the support by registering online through The Regional Business Network - www.regionalbusinesspartners.co.nz
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