Exploring the Chatham Islands means heading into the path of the Roaring Forties - the latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south of the equator, known for their wild westerly winds.

A warm jacket and Swanndri is a must, as well as a keen sense of adventure, an acceptance of regular power cuts and a respect for history and indigenous Moriori culture.

The islands receive on average only 2000 visitors a year; about 95 per cent of them from mainland New Zealand. The maximum number of beds available for visitors is around 150.

But in the post-Covid travel landscape, the Chathams are in a unique position to capitalise on the situation and boost visitor numbers.

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The easternmost point of Pitt Island (Chatham Islands) with Mt Hakepa in the foreground. Photo / Robbie Lanauze
The easternmost point of Pitt Island (Chatham Islands) with Mt Hakepa in the foreground. Photo / Robbie Lanauze

Tourism Chathams Islands manager Jackie Gurden says they believe they're on the verge of a tourism boom, as a result of Kiwis currently unable to travel elsewhere overseas.

"There's an opportunity sitting there," says Gurden, who's been tasked with encouraging growth while managing visitor numbers to ensure the island's landscape and way of life is protected.

Brent Mallinson, co-owner of Flowerpot Lodge on Pitt Island, says the final five or six weeks of their tourist season were decimated by Covid-19 and New Zealand's lockdown. He lost around $30,000 from cancelled bookings. The Chathams have never had a single case of coronavirus. But since domestic travel restrictions have eased, Mallinson says visitor enquiries to the remote lodge have been unprecedented.

"It's nearly all for pre-Christmas so far, which is really interesting. November is filling up quite quickly," he says. Pitt Island is the second main inhabited island in the archipelago and a 25-minute flight from the main island. Mallinson, who's been on Pitt for 14 years, says the visitor market also appears to be changing.

"Generally, we're getting the baby boomers, the 'bucket-listers', middle-aged, have had the Chathams on the bucket list for years, a lot of rural people, retired farmers, we have a lot of couples and even single travellers. This year, there have been more groups and maybe a bit younger."

Flowerpot Lodge on Pitt Island, Chatham Islands. Photo / Supplied
Flowerpot Lodge on Pitt Island, Chatham Islands. Photo / Supplied

Mallinson says guest enquiries suggest travellers are interested in a wider range of activities, including hunting, fishing, walking and birdwatching.

"If it all pans out, it looks like it's going to be a pretty good season."

The Chathams are a two-hour flight from mainland New Zealand, with Air Chathams the only airline to service the islands. Currently, there are three return flights each week, departing from Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The airline plans to gradually increase the frequency to five returns per week from October and six throughout the peak summer period between November to the end of February.

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At a time when airlines around the world are folding and sending staff packing, it's a near miracle such a tiny airline has survived this period of travel decimation.

"It's been tough, really tough," says Duane Emeny, Air Chathams' general manager, who concedes that they may not still be around if it wasn't for the Government wage subsidy. "Hats off to the Government for the way they've stepped up and the speed of which they've done that. We had an application in and two days later there was money in the bank.

"It didn't take much convincing at all to clearly show the essential nature of the lifeline services we provide out to the Chathams."

Air Chathams owner Craig Emeny (left) and his son Duane Emeny, who are both pilots for the airline. Photo / Ollie Dale
Air Chathams owner Craig Emeny (left) and his son Duane Emeny, who are both pilots for the airline. Photo / Ollie Dale

The airline employs 130 full-time staff and so far they haven't had to let anyone go.

"But like all businesses, come September 1 it may be challenging, depending how the markets have picked up."

Air Chathams also flies regional routes from Auckland to Kāpiti, Whakatāne and Whanganui, which are picking up again. But the biggest financial hit to the business is the loss of charter flights, says Emeny.

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"We had an aircraft we purchased solely for a reasonably high-end charter group that comes in from the United States, and they were flying 450 hours a year with us and that's all completely gone," he says. "But from a scheduled point of view, there are some numbers trending positively."

To support the projected growth in tourism on the Chathams, a few key infrastructure projects need funding, according to the local economic development agency, Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust.

Plans are ready for a $36 million airport runway extension, which has made the shortlist under the Government's "shovel ready" infrastructure programme.

Mt Hakepa, Pitt Island, in the Chatham Islands, is the first inhabited place in the world to greet the new day. Photo / Supplied
Mt Hakepa, Pitt Island, in the Chatham Islands, is the first inhabited place in the world to greet the new day. Photo / Supplied

Trust chief executive officer Noel Brown says the extension will help future-proof the airport, by allowing larger jet aircraft like a Boeing 737 to fly in, which would increase both freight and passenger capacity.

"The current planes, when you get on board, you sit with the freight, so there's limited seating capacity," says Brown.
Currently, Air Chathams flies a Convair 580, a multi-engine turbo-prop aircraft from the 1950s, with a limited future lifespan.

"As we produce some of the world's best blue cod, because of the nutrients that exist in the waters here, it opens up a branding opportunity for the Chatham Islands as well, to be producing premium seafood to send to the world markets," says Brown.

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The key industries on the Chathams are fisheries, farming and tourism - the latter being one of the fastest-growing markets. However, due to the small number of accommodation providers, there's a limit on how much more that can grow.

One of the challenges that limits tourism development is the cost of electricity, as their power supply is run by diesel generation, which Brown describes as archaic.

"The cost of freighting diesel up here and running generators - we pay up to three times the cost of what you pay on mainland New Zealand. It's not only a huge burden on residents here but it also limits business growth, because power is one of the main operating costs of business."

There is an application for Government funding to shift to electricity - a $7.8 million renewable energy project, which would include an integrated wind, solar and battery storage system. Not only would it reduce energy costs and be more beneficial for the environment but it would also make power more reliable, says Brown.

Waipaua Coastline looking towards South East Island, Chatham Islands. Photo / Robbie Lanauze
Waipaua Coastline looking towards South East Island, Chatham Islands. Photo / Robbie Lanauze

While these projects would support growth on the Chathams, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of more visitors. Like anywhere facing an influx in tourist numbers, there are fears it could damage the natural landscape and the community's way of life. Tourism Chatham Islands' mandate is to ensure tourism is sustainable and benefits the community, while heritage features and natural resources are preserved.

After all, it's the remoteness and the simple, rugged lifestyle that makes the Chathams so appealing to New Zealanders.

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Emeny says part of the charm of the Chathams is because it's like taking a step back in time.

"It's the way rural New Zealand used to be. Everyone's really friendly, everyone waves as you drive down the road, things might not happen exactly when they are supposed to, but no one seems to care. And it all fits with the environment. It's that old-school Kiwi way of life."

Checklist
CHATHAM ISLANDS
GETTING THERE

Air Chathams flies direct from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. airchathams.co.nz
New Zealand citizens do not need a passport to visit the Chathams.

DETAILS
chathamislands.co.nz

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