Some fear Rotorua's economic recovery from Covid-19 could be thwarted by a persistent perception the city is crime-riddled and unsafe.
Police data from the past five years show a decline in crime year on year. From May 2015 to May 2016, police recorded 7795 crimes, while in the year from May 2019 to May 2020, police recorded 6961 crimes.
However many locals, despite the figures, maintain the city has become more dangerous in recent years.
A survey released by the Ministry of Justice last week suggesting those living in the Bay of Plenty were significantly less likely to experience crime was met with disbelief, with Rotorua justice advocate Maggie Bentley saying she felt less safe than she had 10 years ago.
Since then, a poll on the Rotorua Daily Post Facebook page asking whether people believed the city was safe garnered more than 1100 votes, with 955 of those saying they believed the city was more unsafe than it was 10 years ago.
Many of the respondents cited drugs as a major factor, as well as intimidation by gangs and an influx of homelessness.
"[Rotorua] is home to me but it's not the same anymore, I wouldn't bring my baby up there ... All you see is zombies," one person wrote.
"Big drug problem here. Lack of police. Lots of properties with high fences," another person wrote.
And some said the perception went beyond the city's residents.
"Even people I speak to from out of town don't feel safe, most have childhood memories of visits to Rotorua, now it's on the avoid list."
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It is because of this, some business owners are concerned negative perceptions will deter domestic tourism at a time when the local economy badly needs a kick-start.
The most recent Rotorua Visitor Insights Programme report from December 2019, collated for Destination Rotorua, shows while 100 per cent of domestic travellers had heard of Rotorua and 95 per cent had visited before or knew of things to do, just 38 per cent considered Rotorua "highly appealing" and 20 per cent were likely to visit in the next 12 months.
"Most [people] have childhood memories of visits to Rotorua, now it's on the avoid list."
Rotorua Top 10 Holiday Park owner Jared Adams said his business would rely heavily on domestic tourism picking up post-lockdown.
"We were 70 per cent international tourism before Covid-19 so we are praying domestic tourism picks up despite the perception held by some people that Rotorua is unsafe.
"When I saw the poll results and the amount of people who thought the city was unsafe it did scare me because I thought 'well, what am I not seeing?' It absolutely could impact what people outside our city think.
"On top of that, people will remember incidents from two or three years ago and hold that up as what Rotorua is like now.
"It doesn't take much to influence a person's perception of a place and that perception can last years so it could have an effect on how we recover."
Adams said there was no denying there was crime in the city but it wasn't unique to Rotorua.
"I wouldn't say Rotorua is the safest place in the world but it is definitely far from the worst. I've grown up in Rotorua and I've never felt unsafe, especially when on the main roads."
Rotorua deputy mayor and former police officer Dave Donaldson said the tourism and hospitality sector had a right to be concerned.
"There are people who will persist with spreading this negative perception, even when as a community, we are working well to address the issues we face.
"But the [Ministry of Justice] survey collected people's real experiences with crime and I think it has painted a correct and encouraging picture that the Bay of Plenty is the safest region in the North Island.
"I still interact with a number of police and I don't see that Rotorua is any different to the rest of the Bay."
Donaldson acknowledged perception of crime was based on personal experience but said he didn't perceive the city as any less safe.
"I take the survey at face value and think it should be celebrated from a Bay of Plenty perspective.
"There is an underbelly of crime everywhere you go. While it's important we don't turn our back on the issues that need to be addressed, the big picture is showing we are a safe destination."
Rotorua police area commander Inspector Phil Taikato said he believed Rotorua had a perception problem.
"Rotorua being unsafe is a perception and it's mainly because of the homeless issue around the CBD. Everyone in our community goes through there and our high-needs population is creating this perception of fear.
"There was this atmosphere of unease. However, since Covid-19 our homeless have been off the street and we have a reasonably good handle on it so that could go a way to helping improve that perception."
Taikato said it was important to note, however, the homeless were not responsible for all offending in the city.
"Their presence may give the impression of a fraternity of crime and they are generally responsible for crimes such as petty theft but they are not responsible for the majority of crime."
Taikato said he recognised people liked to see police on the beat, however that was not the most efficient use of police resources.
"It's a balancing act. People feel safer when we are out on the street and we try do that but it's also not the best use of resources.
"We are out there and we are doing our job and will continue to do that, but we also have to work smarter and use our resources smarter and that includes working more collaboratively with our partners."
Visions of a Helping Hand founder Tiny Deane acknowledged the homeless created a "massive perception".
"Some of it is real but some of it isn't. In my dealings with the homeless, I'd say 10 per cent were bad, the other 90 per cent are decent people down on their luck.
"The perception in this town is that I own every homeless person. How we need to look at things is that if more people supported the work we're doing and were open to discussions, we would be able to find solutions a lot quicker."
Deane said when he set up the night shelter in the CBD he was "naive" and towards the end, he did regret its placement.
Now the homeless are in motels, Deane hopes to keep them there until he can find each family a permanent residence.
"I've already shifted 12 to 13 families into houses, I'm moving another three this weekend and another two or three next week. In two years time, when international tourism comes back, we will have emptied these motels and they will be ready for tourists.
"This will definitely improve the perception of safety but it's also a big job and one I can't do without support."
In a written statement through the council's communications team, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said feelings of safety were dependent on many factors.
"It's really important locals and visitors feel safe and Rotorua continues to be a place people want to live and visit.
"Improved safety remains a priority for [the] council as part of our ongoing commitment to create a better place for everyone.
"We are working closely with central Government and its agencies, with iwi, police, communities and local organisations, to address social issues like housing, economic and social deprivation and crime. These problems – all of which impact on perceptions of safety – existed before Covid-19 and will be amplified through increased unemployment and hardship as we work towards recovery."
Chadwick said perceptions of safety created by homelessness could not be solved by simply relocating people, "underlying social issues need to be addressed".
She said CBD safety was an issue prior to the increased visibility of homelessness and various initiatives had been established to improve safety.