Māori tourism is slowly rising from the ashes and showing the domestic market how important it is to understand the culture of its own country nearly five months after level 4 lockdown.
As one of Rotorua's oldest sectors, Māori tourism went from being a multimillion-dollar industry to virtually zero in a matter of weeks when Covid-19 closed borders around the world.
The industry still faces challenges with the country's recent move to higher alert levels, but operators continue to reinvent and adapt in an effort to capture more of the New Zealand market in the new Covid-19 environment.
In 2019, there were 234 Māori tourism businesses employing 11,100 people, according to Stats NZ.
More than 70 per cent of Māori tourism businesses came up with new ideas in 2019 in an effort to grow and diversify.
"The innovative nature of these businesses may help them succeed during these challenging times," Stats NZ business statistics senior manager Peter Dolan said.
New Zealand Māori Tourism's Kiri Atkinson-Crean told this newspaper that Covid-19 had been tough on the industry, with many operators losing between 80 and 100 per cent of their business.
But she said since the initial hit, there had also been some exciting business developments.
"There was a lot of innovation and exciting change happening in Māori tourism before Covid struck and I think that's about the changing visitor.
"Those who will ultimately and eventually make the pilgrimage across the planet to New Zealand from our international market post-Covid, will likely be seeking deeper, richer, more intrinsic connection, with the whenua, moana, and the people of New Zealand.
"The Māori economy is different to what it was 20 years ago and those leading know tourism is a sector that can deliver employment goals for its people and is also an opportunity for our people to earn a living by essentially being themselves.
"That will become even more important going forward. It will be a case of being able to dig deeper, innovate, create and be resourceful."
Atkinson-Crean said an example of this was Tamaki Māori Village owner Tauhara North Tourism.
"It is really quiet about what it does but its ambitions for our people and area are really impressive.
"It sees Tamaki as being its employment strategy in many ways. It's response to Covid and borders closing was immediately about its people and that focus hasn't changed.
"Throughout this whole period, its entire focus has been about how they were going to protect its people, how they were going to keep them together and how they were going to create a business that will resonate and be relevant in the future of what tourism is going to be."
She said Māori tourism surviving the effects of Covid wasn't about "pivoting" businesses, rather looking at how they were positioned to deliver to the domestic market.
"What I've seen with operators is they've closed in, interrogated their business, looked at what their product is, the scale of their operation they've delivered previously then honed into and enriched delivery for core segments of the domestic market.
"Education is a really big one. How we deliver something in a meaningful way that resonates with our young people is the opportunity.
"New Zealand history will be a new curriculum requirement - pre-European Māori, European arrival, the richness of Māori culture in today's society and how all New Zealanders are a part of that story – I'd say Māori tourism is beautifully poised to deliver.
"We will look at how we deliver these - not to the scale we were used to, of 600 people a night – but for lower-cost structures and in more engaging, richer narratives that are a scalable model for 15 to 30 people.
"The cool thing about that is when our markets do start to return, Māori product will have adapted and become bespoke enough to be able to scale up and scale down."
Atkinson-Crean said Māori tourism embraced collaboration which saw direct competitors such as Tamaki and Mitai Māori Village sharing ideas.
"They operate in all the same markets but there is constant connection between those organisations because our town needs both need to be successful.
"That whanaungatanga [kinship], the importance of people, and their welfare and safety, has been a really big thing for Māori tourism."
New Zealand Māori Tourism has received $10m in a contingency fund to reposition the sector.
Atkinson-Crean said this was there to support operators to move into new markets and identify new opportunities.
Nadine Toetoe and her partner Karl own and operate Kohutapu Lodge in Murupara.
She said between 95 and 98 per cent of their customers were international.
"[Covid] hit us really hard, right in the manawa, right in the soul. It was almost like a death and we are still very much in a state of mourning.
"Although we are surrounded by natural, breathtaking beauty and we have continually punched above our weight, we are a small, Māori, family-owned and operated business in a remote, rural community that has a low socio-economic base and little exposure to the wider New Zealand."
Toetoe said the lodge had been going from strength to strength, winning an NZ Tourism award last year and the Māori Dragon's Den two years running.
The family was planning to launch a new product and accommodation build when the country went into lockdown in March.
"This year was really our year to grow and to reinvest more into our people and our place. Unfortunately when Covid hit, it took everything away from us. We don't have the luxury of being in a main centre that can rely on local markets and we don't have the luxury of having a well-known brand in the domestic market.
"Our focus was on the international market and we don't have the budget to change our advertising to focus on the domestic market.
"We have the product sitting here ready to go but we still need to make some tweaks to the website, brochures, get out there and promote ourselves but we have no budget to do that because we are just trying to survive at the moment."
Toetoe said Kohutapu Lodge was the largest tourism employer in Murupara and at its peak, was bringing in close to 5000 tourists a year.
"We were punching above our weight in the number of people we were bringing in and what we were able to put back into our community.
"We went without so our children and the community could have. Every year we would take a classroom of kids on an educational trip around New Zealand, we would take hangi meal deliveries up to the classrooms, we would buy school uniforms, koha back to our marae, we helped and gave what we could through tourism, it was a beautiful thing.
"We have kept the majority of our staff on board thanks to the wage subsidy and they all adapted to new roles. When the wage subsidy finishes we will be in a very hard place and will have to have some really hard conversations because we are such a small, family business, our staff are our family."
Toetoe said the lodge had taken a few domestic bookings but it was still struggling in the marketplace because "we are virtually unknown".
"We live and work on-site so this isn't just a business, it's our home, it's our kids' future, it's our community, there is more on the line than just jobs.
"We have good days and bad. We have days of hope and excitement and then there's the reality check, there's a new story that comes out and it's like another punch in the guts.
"The whole beauty of coming out to a place like this is you're away from the hustle and bustle, you're in the rainforest, you're out with our people, you have lakeside accommodation exclusively to yourself, hunting, fishing, eeling, there are all sorts you can do out here but the flipside of that is we struggle to get domestic travellers because they are not coming to Murupara in the first place, and therein lies the crux of our issue."
Toetoe said despite the challenges, Māori tourism and its people were among the most resilient.
"We continually band together, we are whānau. We are able to think and pivot and move on our feet as best we can. I feel, collectively, we will always be strong. Our culture and products will survive. Our people will survive.
"Our products are not man-made services. Our products are us. It's the fabric of who we are and that will never die. You will never see Māori tourism dwindle away, it will just be a bit of a rough journey."
Whakarewarewa Māori Village is one of Rotorua's oldest indigenous tourism offerings.
Speaking when the country was at alert Level 1, chairman James Warbrick said the village
had opened its administration building up to visitors, but the main part of the village
remained close as the safety of the Village Residents had to be considered.
"Covid-19 came upon us really fast and it was a surprise. Once the level 4 announcement
was made the business told our staff to go home and stay safe and not to worry about their wages. The subsidy assisted us to cover some of this cost.
"Coming out of lockdown, we saw that things would have to change drastically so we have
taken a step back and looked at our operation and have started to think about where we
have come from and how we are going to operate going forward."
Warbrick said the business was anticipating the borders would be shut for up to two years so it had to change fast for its new audience - Kiwis.
"Kiwis made up maybe 10 per cent of our income, which wasn't viable in the situation we are in. We have adapted to our Kiwi cousins and have started working on our internal plan which we are hoping to have sign-off by our board in time for the new season.
"You can get caught up in the business and lose sight of your people. Covid-19 is most
certainly a challenge we did not expect, and it is fraught with numerous challenges, but it
has also been an opportunity, albeit forced, to step back and reconnect with our, people, our culture."
Since the country moved up alert levels, Warbrick said the village, including the administration building, was closed.
"We are, in effect, in full hibernation. For us, it is about losing money less, as even in hibernation there are costs for us to meet, trying to trade in these turbulent times, means we lose money more."
Māori Weaving Rotorua owner Anna Hayes said she was a small, Rotorua tourism provider so was able to absorb fluctuations in visitor numbers.
"Our focus has generally been small groups for a single session but we have now been approached by schools, community groups and tertiary providers.
"We work with them to deliver a session or multiple sessions based on the individual or group need."
She said Covid had little impact on the business but when the country went into lockdown, all face-to-face workshops had to cease.
When asked how she thought Māori tourism would fare in this post-Covid world, Hayes said, "if the decision-making for all things regarding Māori tourism, including border control measures, sits with Māori, then Māori tourism will be well."
Operators including Mitai Māori Village and Te Puia altered their offerings to be more appealing to a domestic market.
Te Puia dropped its entry fees, opened up its restaurant with a new "grazing menu" and has been offering two guided tours throughout the day with more domestic-friendly story-telling.
Mitai was offering drive-through hangi and business owner and cultural identity Wetini Mitai-Ngatai said it was looking at options that were currently commercially sensitive.
Ngāi Tahu Holdings owns 11 businesses across New Zealand, including Rainbow Springs Nature Park and Agrodome in Rotorua and Hukafalls Jet in Taupō.
Agrodome and Rainbow Springs have been closed to the public since lockdown.
Chief executive Mike Pohio said in a statement Ngāi Tahu had retained "the key capabilities we needed to be able to reopen to the domestic market as soon as conditions allowed, starting with Shotover Jet and Hukafalls Jet".
"Hukafalls Jet reopened at Queen's Birthday weekend, with Shotover Jet following on July 3. We have also been able to restart Franz Josef Glacier heli hikes and reopen our joint venture Dark Sky Project in Takapō [Tekapo] in time for the recent school holidays.
"Our Hollyford Track experience will also reopen in January 2021. Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters has remained open throughout with continued success."
He said there was not a reopening date for the other businesses, which included Agrodome and Rainbow Springs, however "we continue to assess conditions for reopening".