The future of the "iconic" Rainbow Springs Nature Park that has been operating in Rotorua for decades is hanging on a knife's edge as iwi decide whether it closes for good.
After going into hibernation in April 2020, the home of the Kiwi Encounter, Big Splash and trout nursery pool, Rainbow Springs may close.
Ngāi Tahu Holdings general manager of corporate services Jo Allison said a consultation process was under way on the possible permanent closure of Rainbow Springs Nature Park.
"After careful consideration of all possible scenarios, Ngāi Tahu Holdings is proposing to permanently close its doors and rehome the wildlife."
Rainbow Springs Nature Park has been an iconic tourism experience in Rotorua since 1932, owned by the Ngāi Tahu Group since 2004.
"Unfortunately, Covid-19 has significantly impacted the Rainbow Springs business, which relied heavily on international tourism," Allison said.
Since the park was closed in April 2020 during the first Covid-19 lockdown, it had not been seen as financially viable to open, Allison said.
"We will be focused on supporting our impacted kaimahi and ensuring the welfare of all animals in this transition period.
"Should the proposal go ahead, we will proactively work with the Zoo and Aquarium Association to relocate the animals."
The kiwi conservation work at the National Kiwi Hatchery at Rainbow Springs would continue to operate there while it developed plans to move to the recently reopened Agrodome.
The equivalent of 3.25 permanent kaimahi and three casual kaimahi could potentially be impacted.
If the proposal went ahead, it was likely an extended notice period would be offered to affected staff so they could assist in rehoming wildlife during the transition.
"A decision will be made once the proposal to close the park has been considered and staff have had the opportunity to have their say."
Many locals grew up taking trips to Rainbow Springs and the potential of its closing left them nostalgic.
Hazel Hagan told the Rotorua Daily Post she grew up in Rotorua and visited Rainbow Springs many times when she was little.
She said the park was filled with memories.
"One time the kea bit my sisters when I was little and we still talk about it even though it was 15 years ago.
"I always thought I'd be able to take my kids to go and have a look at the trout and feed birds."
Hagan felt Rainbow Springs was unique.
"It was so peaceful, it's like the opposite of normal tourism, it's a break rather than an adrenaline rush.
"It's a bit of nostalgia that's going away, it was always fun.
"Rotorua is already winding down from Covid and it's just something else that's going away."
Mike Maher has lived in Rotorua for 50 years and took his kids to the park when they were young as well as his grandchildren.
Maher felt it was something to be proud of.
"It's a bit of an icon, it's what Rotorua's about - its lovely springs and fresh water and trout and the birdlife."
Taking his grandchildren there he was able to show them that Rotorua is "something special, something that a lot of other places haven't got".
"We bought a bit of trout food and walked through the bird sanctuary. The whole thing was really good and they enjoyed it."
Maher felt it was sad future generations won't get to experience the park.
"It's a terrible shame."
Rotorua MP and National Party tourism spokesman Todd McClay said it would be disastrous for Rotorua and the New Zealand tourism industry if Rainbow Springs closed.
"I fear, unless the Government sends a very clear signal about when double-vaccinated people from Australia and elsewhere can come to New Zealand without having to do 10 days of self-isolation in a hotel, we will see many many more businesses close."
By the time visitors were able to come to Rotorua, he feared there would not be as much to do or see, he said.
"As a child I remember visiting Rainbow Springs. It must remain open."
He said it, and every other tourism operator in Rotorua, needed paying visitors, and the Government had the ability to give them certainty by clarifying when and how visitors were allowed back.
"We know international visitors come to Rotorua to see the Springs. They stay the night and spend money at other attractions at the same time.
"For every Rotorua business that closes, there is less to do here. It makes us less attractive to both Kiwis and international visitors. It makes it harder for others struggling to survive to see they have a future in tourism."
The Government announced last week that the MIQ system would be dissolved and introduced a five-step plan to reopen to the world now that the Omicron Covid variant was in the community.
The five-step plan starts with fully vaccinated Kiwis, who can return home from Australia without having to isolate at MIQ from February 27.
MIQ will be removed for most travellers, replaced by self-isolation and Covid-19 tests on arrival. But the managed isolation system will stay in place for unvaccinated people.
Two weeks later, the border will reopen to Kiwis in the rest of the world and Working Holiday Visa schemes will also reopen - technically defined as 11.59pm on March 13.
On April 12, the border will open to international students and temporary visa holders who still meet relevant visa requirements.
Step four will begin "no later" than July 2022 and step five begins in October and includes all other visitors and students who require a visa to enter New Zealand, with normal visa processing resuming.
Tourism and Regional Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash said New Zealand was in high demand.
He said it had been made clear the self-isolation times were likely to reduce and could be lower by the time the country was fully open to international travellers.
"Health advice tells us we still need self-isolation to manage our way through Omicron, but there will be a time in the not too distant future when that will not be the case.
"The five steps to opening up are also designed to give industries like tourism and hospitality the opportunity to deal with workforce shortages before the tap is fully turned on to international tourism in October."
He said he spoke regularly to Rotorua leaders, including the mayor and business sector, and was aware of the challenges facing the wider regional economy.
"Just last month I was heartened to hear the EDA's outlook for the region for 2022, when it reported to media that new tourism and hospitality businesses have recently got off the ground in Rotorua, existing businesses are reinventing themselves, and others are re-emerging to trade after a period of hibernation."
The latest electronic card spending data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment shows the domestic tourism industry in Rotorua was worth at least $290 million in the year to November 2021.
"The domestic tourism spend in Rotorua in 2021 was up by 7 per cent on the same period in 2020. This was a tough year for domestic tourism but nevertheless increasing numbers of Kiwis are heeding the call of the government-financed tourism campaign to 'Do Something New, NZ'."
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said Rainbow Springs has been an "enormous asset to our city so I am saddened at this proposal, but understand how challenging it is to operate in the current environment".
"The kiwi conservation work and the hatchery will remain operating as it currently is, which is a relief."
Neighbouring business Mini Golf Rotorua owner David Eades said, "It's not good for Rotorua. If they're going to go, others are going to go and then hospitality, motels they're all going to be on the backward slide too ... Rotorua could be changed almost indefinitely."
Eades said he recognised how iconic Rainbow Springs was.
"I remember going there as a kid and I think everyone can remember going there as a kid."
He said he understood why it would be so hard for Rainbow Springs to stay open without international tourism.
He said his own business was quieter and website visits were down 10 per cent.
Rotorua Chamber of Commerce chief executive Bryce Heard said he was not surprised at the news.
"There's a lot of forgotten casualties of Covid."
Many tourism businesses were in similar situations, he said.
Businesses needed support, Heard said.
"They're reaching the end of the rope."