Whanganui could become a hub for Māori tourism. Laurel Stowell talks to those pushing to make it happen.
Canoeing the Whanganui River with a "cultural navigator" is an experience marketable worldwide - but it must be high-quality and authentic, Hayden Potaka says.
As the chairman of the Whanganui Maori Regional Tourism Organisation (WMRTO), which has worked with economic development agency Whanganui & Partners to make a strategic plan, Potaka is a key driver behind Māori tourism in Whanganui.
"The hub would be a focus for Te Awa Tupua, river tours and cultural experiences. We are in discussion with the WMRTO and others about this, and believe this hub will be a unique and attractive drawcard for visitors," he says.
Potaka is also on the board of Te Manu Atatū, the Whanganui Māori business network, and the Māori liaison manager for the Central Economic Development Agency (CEDA), based in Palmerston North.
He has whakapapa links to the Otoko, Koriniti and Parikino marae, as well as to South Taranaki iwi Ngā Rauru.
Whanganui also has another strong voice in this area, with MP Harete Hipango currently the National Party's Māori tourism spokeswoman.
She says the Whanganui river is right up there in terms of what it can offer visitors.
But the emphasis needs to be on value - getting high-end, high-value tourists who want an in-depth experience rather than a whole lot of freedom campers who travel on the cheap.
The closure of the Parapara stretch of SH4 gives the Whanganui River Rd the potential to shine this summer, she says.
Potaka says successful Māori businesses offer people choice and opportunity and Māori tourism has extra things to offer.
One is insight into Māori stories, culture and history and the way it has evolved and is still important today.
Māori food and entertainment are other points of difference.
The project with the most potential to be a "game changer" is the development of a cultural hub on the riverfront in Whanganui's downtown area, Whanganui & Partners visitor industries strategic lead Paul Chaplow says.
Meanwhile, Potaka says the WMRTO wants to see more eco-cultural tourism enterprise.
The river has "cultural navigators", many of them trained on the Whanganui tribes' annual river journey, the Tira Hoe Waka.
Knowledge of the river's history and people - and its environmental issues - are all part of a tourism offering.
And tours should give back to the environment, minimise waste and bring meaning to the "tiaki promise" to protect the environment.
There is already a depth and breadth of skill among the navigators, Potaka says.
"That's not to say that there's no room for improvement. There's more room for training in the techniques required from a health and safety perspective, and also through wānanga [learning sessions]."
Ash Patea's business, BA Productions, holds a lot of information, as does the Whanganui Regional Museum.
There are many strands to Whanganui River tourism - from walking tours in Whanganui town to a cafe at Matahiwi, accommodation providers, jetboat operators and facilities provided by the Conservation Department (DoC).
Hipango also cites the soon-to-be expanded Sarjeant Gallery and the Whanganui River's legal personhood, which will be highlighted internationally in Expo 2020 Dubai in October next year.
"We all work together where we can, and it's important that we collaborate," Potaka says.
The WMRTO is looking to better co-ordinate the offerings, by reviving the Journeys on the Whanganui website.
Hipango says it's important to "interweave all the loose threads", and that the New Zealand Transport Agency and Whanganui District Council should help in the mix.
Potaka has his own stake in Whanganui River tourism. In 2017 he took over Unique Whanganui River Experience - a business providing three- to five-day river tours with cultural navigators - including himself.
He has a passion for food, and clients sometimes get gourmet meals, using local ingredients such as pikopiko (fern fiddleheads) and koura (freshwater crayfish).
This year he took another step, buying the Adventurer II riverboat at auction.
He plans to use the boat as a dining room and serve clients high-end, Māori-infused kai.
The boat needed more renovation than Potaka expected, but he says Whanganui's "old-hand engineers" and port staff have been great. A Heads Rd foundry even cast a new propeller for it.
The boat is now in dry dock at the port, to be painted, surveyed and renamed.
Its new name is Manaaki (meaning to cherish, conserve and sustain) and Potaka's new business will be Manaaki Experience.
The boat will probably be in the water this summer, but not up and running commercially.
•Potaka will give a talk at Sarjeant on the Quay on Sunday, November 17 at 4.30pm. It will be about Māori tourism in general, he said, and "might challenge a bit of thinking".
The talk will cost $12 and is one of a series marking the 20-year anniversary of the recommissioning of the Waimarie paddlesteamer.