Bay of Plenty's booming cruise ship season will not return this year, adding another blow to Rotorua's embattled tourism sector.
New Zealand's borders remain closed under Covid-19 restrictions. It is unknown when they will eventually reopen to allow ports to welcome cruise ships again.
The absence of cruise ships signals a loss of close to $100 million to the coastal Bay economy but all is not lost as tourism leaders look for ways to fill the international visitor vacuum.
Tourism Bay of Plenty figures reveal that during the 2019/20 season, there were 268,690 passengers and crew from 105 ships including 25 double ship days, one triple ship day, and six overnight ships.
Most of those ships resulted in on-shore excursions to Rotorua.
While visitor spend figures for 2019/20 have not yet been released, the year prior, 227,358 passengers spent $90.3m in the local economy.
This spend became the second-largest total spending by port in New Zealand.
The absence of this money is expected to be felt throughout the Bay of Plenty for years to come.
Destination Rotorua executive manager, marketing and communications, Jo Holmes said traditionally, cruise ship passengers had been an important source of visitors for many local tourism, hospitality and retail businesses.
"Our proximity to Tauranga and the wide range of attractions and experiences on offer here mean that approximately a third of cruise passengers that come into the Port of Tauranga choose an excursion that includes Rotorua."
Holmes, who also looks after Rotorua Economic Development, said the changing visitor profile meant tourism businesses have refocused their attention on the domestic market.
Destination Rotorua continues to support this process in a number of ways, including working closely with businesses that are going through the process of developing new products and also helping them navigate funding options to mitigate the impact of the loss of international visitors, including the cruise market, she said.
The organisation was also working with businesses to produce exciting new content to position Rotorua even more strongly as the "go-to" domestic location for business events.
Rotorua's Te Puia New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute is among the local tourism sites already significantly impacted by New Zealand's Covid-19 response, including the restrictions on Chinese visitors as far back as January.
General manager of sales and marketing Sean Marsh said the impact had only increased as the pandemic progressed, leading to the tourist attraction's temporary closure in March.
The absence of cruise ships and their passengers was another blow.
"The pending lack of a cruise season this summer will obviously have an impact on our operation - but it is an impact we have considered and planned for as part of the reimagination of our business and rejuvenated focus on our domestic market."
Te Puia reopened on July 2, initially four days a week, with some significant operational changes to best meet the needs of Kiwi manuhiri (guests).
These included opening the gates to make the venue's Te Heketanga te Rangi (gathering area) and Pātaka Kai (restaurant) freely accessible to everyone.
Manuhiri can then purchase a ticket to go down into Te Whakarewarewa Valley to see the geothermal features of the valley and the world-renowned Pohutu Geyser, visit the new kiwi house and wharenui, and experience a tour with a Te Puia guide - many of whom are direct descendants of those who first put Rotorua on the tourism map 200 years ago.
Marsh said the feedback from the thousands of New Zealanders who have visited in recent months had been "fantastic".
The feedback prompted an extension of Te Puia's opening days and the introduction of specific school holiday activities, including haka, traditional Māori games, ta moko.
While the impact of Covid-19 had been devastating for Te Puia, it has provided a unique opportunity to draw on its legacy, in order to move forward, he said.
Marsh, who was also on the board of the New Zealand Cruise Association, said there may yet be cruise opportunities for New Zealanders.
"In French Polynesia, as an example, a number of cruises have been under way within their 'bubble' without [any] Covid issues. So a New Zealand 'bubble' cruise season could be a potential option here."
He said New Zealanders had been a growing part of the international cruise mix "so we know that this is an experience that appeals".
"It would also provide another way for New Zealanders to experience their own country - and in a completely different way."
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick told the Rotorua Daily Post more than half of the city's visitors pre-Covid were domestic and businesses that did rely more heavily on international tourists were now adapting.
"Council and Rotorua Economic Development are working together with sector leaders to respond to the new environment, rebuild and reposition our local economy and look at opportunities to diversify or adapt products to the changing market needs," Chadwick said.
"Like everywhere else, Rotorua is having to adapt and re-focus and we are doing what we can to ensure our ongoing relevance as, not just a visitor destination, but as a desirable place to live, work, invest and do business."
Figures for the coastal Bay of Plenty revealed domestic visitor spending, for the year ending March 2020, reached $864m, making up 77 per cent of the total visitor spend of $1.109 billion.
Tourism Bay of Plenty covered the coastal Bay of Plenty from Tauranga to Whakatāne. Destination Rotorua looked after the city.
Tourism Bay of Plenty head of marketing Kath Low said a collaborative inter-region campaign was about to launch with neighbouring central North Island regions.
A national campaign is also expected to go live this month.