In some of the most testing of circumstances for tourism operators across the country, Whanganui's tourism sector has come out on top, showing the most substantial growth of any district over 2020. Ethan Griffiths finds out what's sparked it.
It was revealed this month that the district's tourism spend grew 4 per cent over the 2020 calendar year - despite New Zealand admitting almost zero tourists through its border, as well as grappling with lockdown restrictions for almost six weeks between March and May.
The increase was the largest jump of any regional tourism group in the country, measured by electronic eftpos spend of tourists around New Zealand by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
Before Covid-19 prompted the closure of New Zealand's border, international tourists made up about 18 per cent of Whanganui's tourism market, so the increase is equivalent to a 22 per cent jump in domestic tourism spending - by far the largest ever witnessed in the region.
So what is driving the boost?
Economic development agency Whanganui & Partners, which is also responsible for the region's tourism promotional group Discover Whanganui, said the figures represent hard work from industry leaders across the city, as well as an increased focus on promotion and perception.
Paul Chaplow, the agency's visitor industries strategic lead, said the rise could be attributed not only to significant promotional work by the council-controlled organisation, but the work of tourism operators themselves.
"Only 4 per cent in this period is pretty remarkable, but when you consider that that is effectively a 22 per cent increase in domestic tourists, that's impressive.
"Obviously there's the whole thing where nationally, no one can leave the country. The domestic market is looking for new opportunities and new experiences, and places they haven't visited before. Operators have taken to that opportunity."
The rise in tourism spending was one of only four in the country. Neighbouring Taranaki had a drop of 2 per cent, while Ruapehu had an 11 per cent drop in tourism spending.
Chaplow said Whanganui, not necessarily previously seen as a tourist destination for most New Zealanders, had experienced a rise in profile, driving larger numbers of domestic tourists, primarily from the larger cities.
"We track numbers through our i-Site of where people are coming from in New Zealand, and the Auckland and Wellington areas are well represented.
"We've also seen over 100,000 people visit our destination websites since the start of July. That is a huge increase too."
Spotlight on Whanganui
Whanganui & Partners said one of the most important parts of a successful tourism campaign was coverage in the media, which Whanganui & Partners had focused on heavily over the past 12 months.
During 2020, the region was featured in many high-profile campaigns outside of general advertising, including many respected national titles.
"We just take advantage of any media opportunity we have," Chaplow said.
Word of mouth was also a powerful tool to drive tourism, and that seemed to be the case locally.
"We kind of ended up in a bit of a virtuous cycle because we've lifted the profile of Whanganui, people have been coming here, many for the first time, and then they've left raving about Whanganui.
"We've kind of ended up in a real positive perception shift."
One of those hosted in the district was Tim Roxborogh, a New Zealand Herald travel writer and Newstalk ZB host, who has visited Whanganui many times in recent years.
The broadcaster dubbed Whanganui "New Zealand's most misjudged city" in a 2019 piece, which remains one of his most-read travel write-ups on his blog.
Roxborogh said when he first pitched the idea to a publication, they questioned why he would want to write about the district.
"The whole narrative about the place has changed to outsiders over the last couple of years. You've got to remember that for a lot of people, Michael Laws and the discussion around gangs was one of the first things you thought about when you thought of Whanganui," Roxborogh said.
"There's nothing quite like going somewhere that other people who don't know about it question why you're holidaying there, and returning home and saying the joke is on them - it's awesome."
The change in perception was also acknowledged by Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall, who said outside views of Whanganui had completely shifted in recent years.
"I think banishing some of the negativity we attracted 10 to 15 years ago and now really focusing on the positives has helped the region on the whole," McDouall said.
"I think the headspace we tried to create, and this has been 10 years' worth of effort, is that a boost of reputation takes a very long time and you can lose your reputation very quickly.
"I have to credit [former mayor] Annette Main. She had the headspace 10 years ago to really restore our reputation and alter the perceptions which, for everyone who lives here knows, isn't the reality."
Local operators on the up
Across Whanganui, local tourism operators had noticed the strength and resilience of the district's tourism sector, with an uptick in visitors evident on the ground.
Whanganui Riverboat Centre manager Phil Pollero said the paddlesteamer Waimarie had often been at capacity over the Christmas period and numbers were currently up 20 per cent on the same period last year.
"We're seeing visitors from near and far, nationally, that are visiting Whanganui for the first time and taking the opportunity to see and do new activities.
"Our themed cruises over Bayleys Whanganui Vintage Weekend were also well-supported and charters remain popular as local and regional businesses and organisations look to reward their teams."
It's a similar story at the Whanganui i-Site, with supervisor Billie Lawson saying they were noticing the same number of people coming through the doors as pre-border closures.
"We've just swapped internationals for domestic visitors.
"The domestic visitors have done us very proud this summer holidays by choosing Whanganui as a visitor destination."