growing northland

The Provincial Growth Fund is tasked with helping surge regions like Northland toward greater self-determination. With grants from the PGF's $3 billion (over three years), prospective businesses can set up or explore opportunities, and existing ventures can expand. In the third of our three-part series Lindy Laird looks at Northland's tourism industry.

Show me the putea

Northland, Te Taitokerau, has been handed more than $126 million directly from the PGF, but its total funding comes to more than $170 million, counting inclusion in some multi-regional projects.

Give or take a fair few million, the Northland funding has seen putea minister Shane Jones receive plenty of flak.

The Minister for Economic Development has been accused by opponents of everything from buying votes to being soft on his home province.

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Accusations include him having a conflict of interest over the Manea Footprints of Kupe project and acting improperly by staying in a meeting where MBIE officials discussed the PGF contribution.

With Jones' name also once suggested a possible chairman of the trust behind the big Manea Footprints of Kupe project, the accusations looked as if they held water.

However, Te Taitokerau is a sparsely populated region with far less than six degrees of separation. Few Māori are not "cuzzies" - whanau, hapu members - and as it is with Ngati Pakeha too, few public figures or people with particular experience or skill have just one role or interest, or are free from a shoulder-tap.

Jones is fed up with the name calling and the attempts to denigrate PGF allocations. ''It's tiresome,'' he sighs.

''This is a process where the politicians make the decisions after receiving the officials' advice. The decision-making process also lies with the independent panel, and let's not forget anything over $20 million requires the approval of Ministers Grant Robertson, David Parker, Phil Twyford and myself.

''But, yeah, I do cop a bit of stick. After all, I've identified myself as someone who isn't afraid to stick his head up, who wants to get things done.''

Jones points out Northland has not received as much PGF funding as Tairāwhiti, which has been given the highest amount, with the West Coast second.

The majority of the direct-to-Northland $126m has gone into industry, infrastructure and public facilities: for example, Northland iwi and public partnership forestry developments, conservation and restoration schemes, a Kaitaia sports hubs, and an irrigation scheme to increase development of land south of Dargaville and in the Mid North. That irrigation project will help harness the districts' high rainfall and pipe the stored water to where it can do more good than harm, in growing horticulture, the economy and jobs.

But tourism is one of the region's significant earners, with a total expenditure on tourism equivalent to $1.13 billion last year. It is proportionally more important for the region than in many other parts of the country.

Cruise ships, like this 2750-passenger Diamond Princess seen here at anchor off Russell, are boosting international tourism dollars coming into Northland.
Cruise ships, like this 2750-passenger Diamond Princess seen here at anchor off Russell, are boosting international tourism dollars coming into Northland.

Yet, while it counts for a big piece of the annual GDP, figures show the industry moves at a sometimes uneven gait.

• The industry contributed $579m to Northland's GDP in 2018, or 9.2 per cent of the region's economic output that year, up from 8.3 per cent 10 years ago. Nationally, tourism earned 5.8 per cent of GDP.
• Economic output increased by 6.3 per cent in 2018, compared with an 8.1 per cent increase in New Zealand overall.
• Growth in the industry in Northland averaged 2.8 per cent over the last 10 years, compared with 3.5 per cent in the country as a whole.
• In Northland the industry employed an average of 8225 people in 2018, or 11 per cent of the total employment number; down from 13 per cent in 2008.
• Employment growth in Northland tourism has averaged -0.7 per cent over the last 10 years, compared with 0.8 per cent nationwide.
• Employment increased by 1.4 per cent in 2018, compared with a 2.6 per cent increase in New Zealand.

Good as the earnings sounds, it could also be seen as a bit of a home goal.

''The domestic market includes spending by Northlanders in Northland, so looking at international expenditure is one way we can be sure this is money coming into the region from outside,'' Northland Regional Council economic policy advisor Jon Trewin said.

Tourism earnings are also seasonal.

''A focus of the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) investment around tourism has been to try and spread this to other times of the year as well as creating a broader range of attractions around the region, noting also that the Bay of Islands accounts for a large amount of incoming money in those summer months.''

Only about a third of Northland's PGF gift has gone to tourism ventures, either as direct grants for stand-alone projects or indirectly through civic, public or partnership developments which visitors and locals will use.

The latter include the upgrade of the Bay of Islands airport terminal at Kerikeri, roads and wharves, and a business case for a public auditorium in a private Whangārei hotel.

The national Tourism Infrastructure Fund has also been a quiet gift horse, providing some funding for amenities such as toilets, car parks and signage at popular locations and will continue to do so if future bids from the region are successful.

As for exponential benefits from PGF-assisted development: ''It remains to be seen if new attractions helped along by PGF investment create new growth pressures in areas that have previously been less visited by tourists,'' Trewin said.

There are also huge growth opportunities in the sharing of unique Māori resources, foremost the culture - tikanga Māori, and te reo, to which inextricably linked are the environment, te rongoa (traditional health) and te wairua.

The PGF fund has provided $4.6 million in honour of Kupe, the first man to lead his people to Te Taitokerau and the hero of the visitor information, interactive, performance and tour centre to be built at Opononi.

The centre will celebrate Kupe's voyage to Hokianga and across Aotearoa, present and preserve 1000 years of Māori history through stories of Kupe's descendants, and showcase local culture and places of historical significance.

As well as the PGF grant, Northland Regional Council has pledged $500,000 and Foundation North $650,000 to the centre, which could eventually cost close to $12 million.

"There is immense opportunity for Māori to develop tourism businesses around their culture, history and stories. Manea Footprints of Kupe is an important part of that offering to visitors," tourism minister and Te Taitokerau MP Kelvin Davis said.

The development is being welcomed by tourism operators along Northland's west coast. This is an area which has comparatively been off the beaten track for the visitor industry but the soon to be brand-boosted Twin Coast Discovery route takes visitors to the Matakohe Kauri Museum and along one of the world's top forest drives through the Waipoua, to the Hokianga and beyond.

Future proof

An example of a stand-alone and Māori initiative is $1.79 million from the PGF for a revamp of the quirkily shabby, much-loved Te Waiariki Ngawha Springs complex.

''This is Māori-owned, but it's not just for Māori,'' Parahirahi Ngawha Waiariki Trust chairman Dr Te Tuhi Robust said.

Parahirahi Ngawha Waiariki Trust chairman Dr Te Tuhi Robust.
Parahirahi Ngawha Waiariki Trust chairman Dr Te Tuhi Robust.

Over the last four years patronage of the springs has doubled and the trust has dreamed big about a new complex to cope with further growth. The PGF funding adds to a Foundation North grant of $1.87 million which is in hand, ''plus money from the springs we've been able to squirrel away for a while'' and hopefully funds from a grant application yet to be decided by Lotteries NZ.

''The timing was perfect for us. We've been in litigation with our neighbours Top Energy for years [boundaries issues over the expansion of the Ngawha geothermal power station] and we've been in the Waitangi Treaty settlement disputes process for 15 years. Everything seemed an uphill struggle and we've been on hold over the Ngawha springs plan,'' Robust said.

''Now it's just fantastic that this week we'll be submitting the building resource consent application.''

A $4m building complex will add polish to Ngawha Springs, one of Northland's true diamonds in the rough.
A $4m building complex will add polish to Ngawha Springs, one of Northland's true diamonds in the rough.

Robust said the trust was looking forward to the ''first spade going in the ground'' in a few months' time.

The plan is to replace the grungy changing rooms with state-of-the-art suites and at least 30 jobs will be created in the cafe, massage rooms, meeting rooms and shop.

''Let's make it perfectly clear, we are not touching the pools, they've all been recently upgraded,'' Robust said of the tōtara lined, hot spring-fed pools that are the plum in the Ngawha kite.

The largest single lump of PGF cash into Northland is for a heritage site development; $14.5 million toward a Māori Battalion Museum at Waitangi Treaty Grounds, due to open in February 2020.

While the museum honouring the world famous modern Māori warriors will add to the cache and pull of Waitangi, a neighbouring attraction is on the way to surpassing its promises to the community, the PGF and other backers.

The $2.1 million Waitangi Mountain Bike Park, nursed along under the wing of local trust Focus Paihia, was launched in 2016 with community raised, Far North District Council and other funding to the tune of $1.6m. Last year it received $490,000 from the PGF to finish its final stage.

That money ultimately goes toward creating more local jobs — 170 expected within 10 years — in the exponentially enhanced visitor sector the bike park will generate.

Even before its 72km of tracks catering to all abilities are completed, the park is a runaway success with the aim to attract 15,000 new visitors to the region after three years is nearly a reality already.

The park is expected to earn a silver rating from the International Mountain Bike Association, putting it on a level with some of the most popular mountain bike parks in the world.

Riding the Wave, Waitangi Mountain Bike Park is a success story for the region Photo / Waitangi Mountain Bike Park
Riding the Wave, Waitangi Mountain Bike Park is a success story for the region Photo / Waitangi Mountain Bike Park

''Awesome, fantastic,'' is how Focus Paihia chair Grant Harnish described the park taking the last big jump thanks to the PGF.

The charitable community promo and facilitating group backed setting up the bike park project for two reasons, he said.

''One, it had to be for the benefit of Northland. It was about keeping Northland healthy, celebrating its uniqueness and being free for kids. We do not charge an outright fee to use it but the vast majority of people do donate, and that majority is from Wellsford south.

''Two, one of things we had to do was look to improve employment in the area, and it will do that in spades. After year three or four, this park will introduce millions of economic benefit to this area.

''The PGF enabled us to finish the park, without it, we were running out of places to turn to. We're still working on the last tracks but now every cent the park makes can go back into maintaining it,'' Harnish said.

''Regarding the entire Northland, in many sectors the PGF, in my opinion, will provide hope. That's job growth, but also visitors who come here will find better facilities that we can't afford without help.

''We're the largest region in the North Island but with probably the smallest ratepayer base. Visitors don't directly pay into our infrastructure, and the PGF amount is infinitesimal compared to the cost of what rates have to cover.

''Tourism is the single biggest earner in the North. It is critical that we provide what people need to enjoy the place, not just for visitors but to attract people to live here.

''People need to realise that this [PGF] is a golden opportunity. With the bike park alone, there are connections being made, including strong ones with local hapu, businesses set up on the back of the new cycling visitor to the area and what this will also do is bring young people home, back to the area.''

Harnish said he hoped other ventures in Northland, even those which were ineligible for PGF money, would be inspired by the ethos behind it: ''That if you have your own income, you're in control of your own destiny.''