Whanganui River's status as a living entity and its importance to iwi have to be at the centre of an iconic experience for visitors, Paul Chaplow says.
He's the visitor industries leader for Whanganui District Council's economic development agency, Whanganui & Partners, and is getting "an over-arching template for the development of Whanganui as a destination" together.
The river, arts, heritage and wellness are themes that tourism stakeholders say should be important in the new Destination Management Plan.
However, something is missing. Chaplow is looking for an iconic experience - something people will feel they have to come to Whanganui for. The glaring gap in Whanganui's tourism offerings is something that tells about the specialness of the Whanganui River, he and other stakeholders say.
"There's a lack of iwi product and iwi visual identity in this region. It's something that was brought up and something that we hope to do more about, working closely with iwi."
Chaplow has a contract to work with Whanganui Regional Māori Tourism chairman Hayden Potaka to explore the idea. One possibility is a Te Awa Tupua eco-cultural hub, where people can learn more and then visit a marae for their own personal experience.
The hub will need to be near the middle of town and river. It might take some time to get it, but a scoping study has been done and gives Chaplow confidence to continue.
Another possibility is using the Whanganui River Rd as a focus, "a wonderful drive, but such little information", he said.
The process of making a Whanganui Destination Management Plan began in August with talking to a lot of stakeholders about their aspirations.
Consultant company TRC Tourism is now finishing a draft. Stakeholders and Whanganui & Partners will have two weeks to comment on it. A final plan should be ready to put on the economic development agency's website by the end of March.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment wants every region in New Zealand to have such a plan, and the Government has helped with funding. The work follows the 2013 Whanganui Visitor Strategy, also compiled with TRC Tourism.
It needs renewal because things have changed - the Te Awa Tupua legislation, a global pandemic, fewer international tourists, Whanganui's population increase and increased visitor spend.
The district is already on a good path, Chaplow said, and he doesn't see a radical shift in direction.
Tourism operators have social licence here, he said, because there are not too many tourists.
"People are still very, very welcoming of visitors, and proud to show off our town."
One main visitor target group is people aged 30 to 45 who ride bikes, hike, paddle canoes, swim and go to cafes and restaurants. The other group, people over 65, is more interested in the arts, museums and galleries.
Whanganui is not on the main tourist highway but it can offer authenticity. These days people want to be "prosumers rather than consumers", Chaplow said. They want to "be a local for a day", and "go away with a real experience and deep understanding".
Events will be a key part of the new plan because they "really drive visitation".
Chaplow would also like a four- or five-star hotel in town to cater for large events. And he knows people live in Whanganui for the lifestyle but encourages those catering to visitors to be open at peak times - then take their holidays when it's not busy.