New Zealand's borders fully reopen next month. But how ready is the region for an expected rise in international visitors? Laura Smith reports.
Rotorua's "aggressive" homeless community and a lack of staff could tarnish the city's efforts to welcome back international visitors when borders open next month, business leaders fear.
However, others say businesses have invested in their attractions during the pandemic and expect visitors to stay longer in search of richer and deeper cultural experiences.
The border will fully reopen from July 31, two months earlier than the Government initially planned.
Rotorua publican and Hospitality New Zealand Bay of Plenty branch president Reg Hennessy said the city was "certainly not" ready for the return of international visitors.
"Obviously with our motel problem in Rotorua, it's going to make it difficult for us."
He said it was up to those in the industry to make sure visitors had a good experience.
"It's very important we do it right when they come. They will be able to be a lot more picky and fussy."
There was still a long way to go until offering picked back up to pre-Covid times, he said, and staff shortages were also hitting hard.
"We're going to have a major problem, it's going to be quite chronic.
"When we really start to come right, catastrophically we're going to have no staff for services."
Redwoods Treewalk managing director Bruce Thomason said the way it had pivoted during the period of border closure meant he was able to retain all staff.
"We were really pleased and surprised with how strong the domestic market has been over the last two years."
SuperGold cardholders helped boost numbers during the week, while weekend and school holiday visitors were comprised of families and domestic travellers.
He was hopeful visitors would want to come to this part of the world as it was considered "safe" and away from chaos, but said airline capacity would be a hurdle.
He shared Hennessy's concerns about the possible impact of emergency housing problems on the tourist experience.
Emergency and transitional housing was a New Zealand-wide issue and he believed when visitors returned motels would shift back to hosting them.
He wondered if an increased police presence would help keep visitors safe while they explored the "great products" the city had to offer.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick previously expressed her concern about the activities of those in non-government-contracted motels in letters to Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni.
Chadwick said in the letters the community was suffering due to drug use, violent behaviour, vandalism and other anti-social behaviours near the motels and there was a perception those living in emergency accommodation were "destroying our city and its reputation".
When asked if she still believed it was impacting the city's reputation and would have an impact on visitors' experience, she said Rotorua continued to face challenges, "and we are working hard to address these but I'm confident Rotorua will do what it does best and ensure our visitors have a great experience".
She said there was a sense of positivity from tourism operators and hotel managers, however.
"There are already some international visitors filtering through and everyone is looking forward to those numbers increasing."
She noted how a number of operators have added new experiences, as well as upgraded assets like the lakefront and forest hubs.
Inchul Kim helps his sister look after her Tutanekai St store, Three Tikis Souvenirs.
The shop had changed stock to suit locals' tastes when the border closed. Five other souvenir shops had permanently closed in Rotorua, he said.
He believed the emergency housing situation in the city was having a negative impact on the visitor experience.
"Fenton St is called Homeless St now."
Kim said he stopped walking along Fenton St after witnessing "aggressive" behaviour from homeless people.
Rotorua Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button said sales dropped 60 per cent when the borders closed.
He felt there was a misconception that the border reopening would bring a flood of business.
"We're actually trading at below what we were last year."
International clients made up about 7 per cent of current sales but this was hard to track as some individual domestic visitors identified as international.
"We're really positive about the future, but right now the sales are still poor."
When asked if Rotorua was ready for visitors, he said the city had a number of quality hotels and motels, but in a more limited supply than pre-Covid.
"But in terms of attractions and people, I think the desire to host people is there.
"You know we're going to deliver the old-fashioned Rotorua manaakitanga."
With the border opening, several employees had left to have their own overseas experiences and he said the announcement left no time for planning.
"You've got a bit of a vacuum with domestics leaving and no working holiday visas to fill those voids."
He was excited about the future, but "we're not out of the doldrums".
We have sufficient capacity
The Rotorua Association of Motels new chairman Nick Fitzgerald said the return of visitors would be gradual.
"So from an accommodation perspective, I think we have sufficient capacity."
He did not expect to see any change in motels offering emergency housing in the next 12 months.
Instead, Fitzgerald expected business models to change next year as visitor demand increased.
In terms of impact on visitor experience, he said it was "undeniable" there were challenges.
"I think what is really positive is that we are seeing more motels that are exclusively emergency housing and do have wrap-around services."
Those were the ones that had better outcomes for the community. he said.
About 20 motels were exclusively tourism-focused, and the majority of others were exclusively emergency housing.
There were some that used a mixed model, which Fitzgerald described as opportunistic.
"When town is busy that is when you will see that model rise, unfortunately."
He said staffing was a challenge in all roles of the sector and work was needed within a year to increase the capacity of the workforce.
Restaurant Association of New Zealand Rotorua president Sharon Wallace told the Rotorua Daily Post last month she was aware of businesses in the city struggling to keep staff numbers up.
Businesses were advertising for staff on a "daily basis" and the impact of it meant service delivery was not up to speed and there was increased pressure.
National Party Rotorua MP Todd McClay said a lot of private operators were starting to get ready.
"There is high expectation and hope good numbers of visitors will come to Rotorua."
However, the city needed to play "catch-up" in getting accommodation ready.
"It will be a big challenge and I know the sector is worried about that."
He said he heard of instances where motels would be called and asked if they were providing emergency housing when people inquired about a room.
"That tells me the New Zealand public is aware of this and worried. I'm concerned this will continue to have an effect on our reputation."
From a tourist point of view, the attractions looked good.
But the ongoing impact of the economy on shops closing meant parts of the CBD and Fenton St had changed over the last few years.
"There is a lot of work to be done because a visitor comes and doesn't have the experience they expect to or should have and goes and tells the next few people who might come here."
But optimism remained, he said, and inquiries had come on quickly and bookings had started.
This gave confidence money would once again flow, and provided an opportunity for businesses to look at the type of offering they had, he said.
Hospitality New Zealand Bay of Plenty accommodation sector chairman Tony Bullot said businesses in both Tauranga and Rotorua were "absolutely" ready, with a range of accommodation options from affordable to luxury.
He acknowledged there were "challenges" in Rotorua but as he was based in Tauranga, he felt he could not give further comment beyond saying the issues were complex.
The opportunity for international visitors returning was positive: "It's what we do, it's in our blood."
But visitor numbers would not immediately be back to what they were pre-Covid.
"It's not magic. We don't just turn on the tap and suddenly we're full."
Rotorua Business Chamber chief executive Bryce Heard said there was excitement and relief at the prospect of getting the tourism and hospitality sector back into action.
All had been under stress to various levels and getting visitors back into town would be a welcome respite, he said.
"Some of the international tourism businesses have closed their doors, some have managed through the border closure on scant domestic custom bases."
Quite a few pivoted to new offerings, and some of these were "innovative and outside the square".
But one of the consistent messages from members was the difficulty now being faced with replacing the staff who were lost due to the Covid-19 slowdown.
"There are stories of owners and managers doing their own hotel/motel cleaning as they move back into higher occupancy levels and struggle for good staff."
The general sentiment, however, was "bring it on".
Rotorua Economic Development chief executive Andrew Wilson said visitor numbers were likely to rise in spring as airlines would take time to increase capacity and connectivity.
"As a destination, we will absolutely be ready to welcome back visitors.
"Over the past two years, businesses have spent a lot of time and resources developing their offerings and creating new products so that visitors have a deeper experience."
Skyline's new luge tracks that were launched last week, and the recent opening of Rotorua Ziplines at Okere Falls, highlighted both investment and new offerings that were great examples of development that will enhance the region as a destination, he said.
Wilson said some tourism businesses engaged local Māori cultural advisers to ensure the mana and integrity of their work is enhanced, and there had also been a strong shift toward creating a more meaningful and authentic experience.
"Because of this we are expecting more long-haul visitors staying longer in search of richer and deeper experiences where they can connect with local culture."
In terms of challenges, like most sectors, many operators were still struggling to find skilled staff, he said.
Rotorua Airport chief executive Nicole Brewer said the Omicron outbreak and red traffic light setting had meant passenger numbers were below budget.
There were signs of improvement and numbers were on the up.
"It's really exciting to see the airport getting busier and a lot more people are travelling than there were earlier in the year."
Bay of Plenty-based Labour list MP Angie Warren-Clark said she was aware there was "significant pressure" around labour and getting sufficient staff.
"I think with our borders opening there will be an opportunity to pick up people on working visas."
In response to comments of there being a "void" as New Zealand employees left for
overseas and a lack of working holiday visa-holders to hire, she said as far as she was aware, because pre-departure Covid tests were removed, people would be able to travel to and fro more freely.
"Lots of opportunities will come. The world will go back to what we've always known in terms of our travel profile."