Few places in the world can boast the natural wonders of Kaikoura. That all changed in one shaking, shocking minute last Monday morning. The 2000 or so who live there speak of resilience and rebuilding a new future but, with the tourism dollar critical to survival, Russell Blackstock explores the mammoth task ahead.

When Kauahi Ngapora's internet was turned back on two days after the devastating earthquake at Kaikoura, the bleak reality of the situation facing the tiny tourism town began to sink in.

Ngapora is general manager of Whale Watch, the town's biggest employer, which caters for about 100,000 visitors a year.

The company's computer system had been down following the 7.8 magnitude quake which struck in the early hours of Monday.

When it was finally back up and running on Wednesday afternoon, thousands of emails from all over the world were waiting for Ngapora and his staff.

Most of them had a similar theme - enquiries about cancellations and refunds.


"We were heading for an amazing summer season and had tens of thousands of advance bookings," Ngapora says with a heavy sigh. "Overnight, that has completely changed and there is huge uncertainty about where we go from there."

Kaikoura relies on tourism, 80 per cent of it international, but right now the future looks daunting.

This week, whale watching boats in the bay were replaced by naval ships and helicopters evacuating hundreds of stranded tourists.

There are concerns the seabed was raised by the quake, which has left tourism vessels high and dry in the marina. It is unclear if the main highway in and out of town can ever be fixed after being wrecked by landslips.

It has been hell for local businesses and workers. Tourism operators, motel owners, farmers, fishermen, the local bank, a cheese maker who has appeared on Country Calendar ... they are all feeling the pain.

"This is our home as well as the place we make our livelihood so we will do everything we can to put Kaikoura back on the map," Ngapora insists. "The bottom line is we have no other choice.

In the first few days after the quake - which released a similar amount of energy to 400 atomic bombs detonating - the outlook among some locals was understandably one of doom and gloom.

Local boat skipper Dean Kennedy told the Herald: "Our summer is buggered. We are all out of a job pretty much."

Kaikoura was dependant on tourists and fish, including crayfish, and there wouldn't be any of them around for a few months, he said.

"Normally it's busy, flat out. There are four whale watching boats, three charter fishing boats and three dolphin watching boats ... and long weekends and Christmas we get recreational boats from Christchurch."

But now, instead of diving for paua, the seafood beds had been left exposed by a 2m rise in the sea floor.

"Normally where we go diving people are walking out and picking them up.

"All the kaimoana that's in that zone is going to die."

The sheer scale of the problems facing Kaikoura are immense.

New Zealand Transport Agency has been working around the clock to fix bridges on a local, inland road previously known as State Highway 70 - into the town to provide limited access.

But repairing its State Highway 1 lifeline and the rail lines either side of the South Island township will take months and is likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Transport Minister Simon Bridges says.

The quake also lifted the seabed more than a metre, rendering the marina used for launching the tourism boats, useless at present and this may need to be dredged or rebuilt elsewhere.

Huge slips, caused by the 7.8 earthquake, are blocking State Highway 1, north of Kaikoura. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Huge slips, caused by the 7.8 earthquake, are blocking State Highway 1, north of Kaikoura. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It is also still unclear the extent of damage caused to the marine environment and the affect on the plentiful wildlife, which attracts people to Kaikoura in the first place.

Another main hurdle will be reassuring international visitors that New Zealand is still safe to visit, despite the recent quake, which also rocked Canterbury and Wellington, killing two people and causing damage which could run into billions of dollars.

John Key and tourism organisations say there is a real risk overseas markets will get the wrong idea of the size of the area affected and stay away.

Tourism New Zealand is charged with marketing the country abroad and said its current focus was on working alongside other agencies to get accurate information about the situation here, out to trade partners.

And Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts says after the Christchurch earthquakes, even regions that hadn't been directly impacted suffered a significant drop-off in visitors.

"We were heading for an amazing summer season and had tens of thousands of bookings."


He says he is working closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to monitor what is being said overseas about the situation in order to respond appropriately and get the message across that New Zealand is "still very much open for business".

"Minds are already turning to the future, to next summer and beyond," Roberts says. "It is the loss of the key route from Picton to Christchurch which is expected to cause the most problems as it will change the flow of visitors to the South island, and of course Kaikoura."

Roberts believes while Kaikoura is being rebuilt, areas of the north and west coasts of the South Island such as Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park could benefit from an increased volume of tourists.

"It is key that people still come to the South Island and are not put off. We have a big focus on reassuring overseas markets that it is safe to come here.

"Inbound tourism operators are furiously busy rearranging people's itineraries.

"But in the long term, the natural assets of Kaikoura are so outstanding and the visitors will return."

The arrival of naval and other help to get the stranded tourists out of town, plus visits by Prime Minister John Key with promises of a package of financial aid, has buoyed spirits.

Whale Watch - which employs up to 70 people at peak times - is determined to stay afloat despite the challenges ahead. Photo / Whale Watch Kaikoura
Whale Watch - which employs up to 70 people at peak times - is determined to stay afloat despite the challenges ahead. Photo / Whale Watch Kaikoura

The Government is putting together a special assistance package similar to that used after Christchurch to help retain staff until things start to recover, tax relief, and possible emergency legislation to bypass resource consent for dredging.

On Thursday, it was announced at the core of the assistance for Kaikoura, which has a permanent population of little more than 2000 residents, is a subsidy to help businesses pay wages while the highways to the township are blocked by landslips.

The package will last for eight weeks, but may be extended, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said.

It is not the first time Kaikoura has been in trouble and risen again.

In the late 1980s, its economy was in steep decline and many jobs had been lost in industries such as fishing, communications, and the railways.

In desperation, Maori leaders staked their future on whales, their ancient protectors of the past.

The Ngati Kuri-run Whale Watch is the pride of Kaikoura. Its founders mortgaged their homes to build it, paving the way for other eco-tourism ventures.

The company's first small boat took a total of 3000 people whale-watching in its first year. Now it is a multimillion-dollar business carrying tens of thousands of visitors who flock from all over the world and other tourism businesses have popped up and grown in its wake.

"The situation for the summer is severe, and we will just have to write it off."


The despair of the days after the quake, however, is now being replaced by a fighting attitude among the people and businesses of Kaikoura.

Whale Watch - which employs up to 70 people at peak times - is determined to stay afloat despite the challenges ahead.

"Next week we will look at where the business is going forward and get some proper clarity around that," Ngapora says. "Once the infrastructure is back up, then that's a start.
"In terms of our operations, the marina will be our biggest challenge.

"Because the coastline has moved, our boats are sitting on the sea floor. We will have to wait and see where the new tide fits and we will also take a ride out and see how things are with the marine life.

"Rebuilding will not be easy but we are fortunate that there is nowhere else the world where people can see male sperm whales close to the coast all year round.

"It is going to be tough but we are not going under."

Matt Foye, owner-operator of Kaikoura Kayaks, has been in business for 18 years and has four employees. He is adamant he will stay and rebuild.

"We were happy to see all the help arriving and John Key coming to visit has boosted morale," he says "This is a special spot in the world and we will be here for as long as it takes to get back to normal, which I expect will be about a year.

"I can understand if some people don't want to come here for a while because there has been a big quake.

"But after the initial shock of the event and the drama in the days afterwards, the people and businesses of the town will pull together and make it work again."

Dennis Buurman runs Encounter Kaikoura, which has been taking visitors out on the water to see dolphins, seals and albatross since 1991. The company has three dolphin boats and a bird-watching vessel.

"There are no two ways about it, the situation for the summer is severe, and we will just have to write it off," he says. "We had just over 50 staff lined up for the summer season and our forward bookings were the highest we have ever experienced.

"But on top of the difficulties people will have getting in and out of Kaikoura, the seabed being raised is a really significant issue.

"There are rocks exposed we have never seen before, we have been having strange tides and our ability to launch boats have been compromised.

"In the short term we can't operate but we will be back, even if we have to start again on a restructured scale."

Kaikoura mayor Winston Gray is also determined his beloved beauty spot will not be turned into a ghost town.

"At the moment we don't know what the future will be like," he says. "It won't be an easy fix but getting the road back in operation is vital and we have to look at future proofing that highway.

"Kaikoura is world-renowned and has so much going for it. We simply have to survive."

Blown out of the water

Monday's giant earthquake has also delivered a "massive blow" to the multimillion-dollar crayfish industry.

Ward-based Burkhart Fisheries exports millions of dollars worth of the rock lobster to the lucrative Chinese market every year.

The company usually trucks its live crayfish to Christchurch International Airport where they are flown alive across the world.

But the indefinite closure of State Highway One means they have had to look at alternative routes, to try and get the crays out of the country in a good state.

"We can overcome that," co-owner Dennis Burkhart says. "We can still get them to Christchurch, it will just take longer."

He called on the New Zealand Government to step in, as shareholder of Air New Zealand, and potentially re-route a freighter into Blenheim once a night to help keep local industry going.

However, that's the least of his worries now.

The violent quake has lifted the Kaikoura coastline seabed out of the water by about 2m.

It's meant that the launching spots for fishing vessels - off rocky beaches - have been "hugely compromised".

"That's going to be a massive problem. Where we are at the moment, we won't be able to launch without some help through maybe consents to blow channels, or get the army in to blow a few channels to make it a bit safer to get in and out."

There's also uncertainty around how the crayfish stocks have been affected by the natural disaster.

"This is a huge blow," Burkhart admits.

"But you've got to basically accept that, and fishermen are trained to deal with adverse circumstance. But it will sit us on our arse for sure, but we're not knocked out, we can get back on our feet."