Bungy is an activity that has been exported as a great Kiwi pastime. Up there with Rugby Union and dagging sheep, jumping is a ritual that has helped New Zealand find a niche in international tourism.

However, like the oval ball and manhandling livestock, it's something that fewer Kiwis can relate to than overseas guests might assume. Very few New Zealanders have done a jump.

AJ Hackett - the pioneers of bungy as both a sport and a commercial tourism attraction - recently revealed that just two out of 10 jumpers across their business are from New Zealand.

At the Kawarau Gorge, AJ Hackett's premiere attraction, 83 per cent of paying visitors are from overseas. At least they were until this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic abruptly stopped the movement of international tourists.

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The national lockdown has been hugely disruptive for business, says MD and co-founder Henry van Asch, especially for one as relentless as bungy jumping.

"We've been operating Bungy for more than 30 years – some 11,520 days onsite – and the 50 days in lockdown has been the only time, apart from Christmas, that we've closed since we began," he said.

The company recently received a $10.2 million government bailout which has allowed AJ Hackett staff to retain 20 jobs. The Otago Daily Times reported that the money would allow the company to reopen across all 13 sites.

However, van Asch acknowledges this $10 million lifeline is a temporary fix. Without international tourism or a huge shakeup of the business, they could soon be back over the precipice.

"With the marked absence of international tourists, we're operating on a fraction of the number of customers we usually accommodate and with no clear idea of when the international market might return," he said.

Just 17 per cent of tourists at AJ Hackett's Kawarau Bridge jump are from New Zealand. Photo / CHRISTCHURCH STAR
Just 17 per cent of tourists at AJ Hackett's Kawarau Bridge jump are from New Zealand. Photo / CHRISTCHURCH STAR

Clearly the business needs to start wooing more domestic tourists, but this will be no easy task.

Part of this will be answering the question: why is it that so few New Zealanders have taken part in the extreme sport?

As with any high adrenaline, adventure activity – bungy is not for everyone. The sport has been used to study the addictive qualities of high-risk behaviour – something from which Hackett has benefitted, in growing their business internationally, among repeat jumpers – however, talking people up to taking a death-defying leap is no easy task.

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So is it that Kiwi tourists are too chicken, or too cheap?

Bungy operators have conceded that price point might be a part of it. Years of international jumpers have pushed up prices.

AJ Hackett reopened with specials and is still offering a third off jumps until July 19. The Nevis Bungy – the company's most expensive attraction – is now under $200 a jump, (down from $275). Still, it's a price some New Zealanders might consider steep.

In Ngongotaha, Velocity Valley operates Rotorua's only bungy. Dangling 43m, suspended from a crane arm it's the tallest and most expensive of the six adventure attractions on offer. A jump normally costs just under $150, but it's still New Zealand's most affordable bungy.

The Rotorua Bungy at Velocity Valley is New Zealand's most affordable jump. Photo / Supplied
The Rotorua Bungy at Velocity Valley is New Zealand's most affordable jump. Photo / Supplied

It's also one of the rare jumps where domestic riders are in the majority.

Sixty-five per cent of its riders are from New Zealand says Debbie Guptill, sales manager for the park.

"Yes our numbers have dropped but we are well known locally," says Guptill. "We're still in a pretty good place."

Although international tourists were an important part of the business "unlike some other operators we haven't allowed our prices to be inflated".

Kiwis are very price driven on deciding holiday activities, however, offering jumps too cheaply risks undercutting the whole sport.

"Running a bungy isn't cheap" Guptill says. As a New Zealand sport, the national code of practice for bungy has helped form industry standards around the world. Auditing, insurance, design, testing and approval or equipment and staff operating procedures all add up.

"We make our own bungy cords on site," she explains. There are many costs not obvious to jumpers, who only see a bungy and 43m of thin air.

"New Zealander's have the expectation that just because it's at home you should be able to do it more cheaply."

Dropping prices too low would lead to a false economy. Instead, those trusting their life to the elastic strips and expertise of Kiwi operators should find the price tag reassuringly expensive.

Still, as New Zealand remains closed to international tourists, we may have to wait some time to see the sport bounce back.

Tips for bungy first-timers by AJ Hackett Bungy NZ co-founder Henry van Asch

•If you can, make your first bungy from the Kawarau bridge. This is where AJ and I opened the world's first commercial bungy-jumping operation. With the option for a dunk in the Kawarau River. It's awesome.

•Queenstown, Taupo and Auckland – all offer unique bungy experiences. From Auckland Harbour Bridge, you can touch the ocean, from Taupō you're jumping from a cliff-top high out over the Waikato River, every jump is incredible.

•If you can bungy, you can do anything. Standing on that ledge can feel pretty terrifying at the time, but facing that fear brings an amazing feeling of achievement.

•Watching a bungy is often scarier than doing it for yourself. It's worth it, believe me.

•We're thanking Kiwis for their hard work during lockdown with 30 per cent off all our experiences in all three centres Auckland, Taupō and Queenstown.

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