Tourism in Whanganui is booming, outperforming every other region in the past 12 months with growth of 3 per cent, and local businesses are loving the spinoff.
The city was only one of three of the 31 Regional Tourism Organisations (RTOs) in New Zealand to record growth in the year ended November 2020, according to new data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).
Whanganui & Partners' tourism lead Paul Chaplow said the result was "exceptional in the year in which Covid-19 struck".
"The results are thrilling but we've been seeing impressive numbers month-to-month, so we were expecting a good year-end outcome," Chaplow said.
Despite the loss of international tourists, the district has not only managed to make up those numbers but also increase its share of the market. The majority of other regions experienced a loss in growth, while Wairarapa and Northland saw a slowing in growth.
Chaplow said Whanganui & Partners had concentrated its advertising efforts nationally, helped in part by its success in receiving $700,000 in MBIE funding to boost the Whanganui RTO's budget.
Highly visible advertising campaigns had attracted visitors from the big centres and resulted in feedback indicating many of those people intended to return.
"Whanganui & Partners spent more on advertising in 2020, but the results of the spend had been exponentially better," Chaplow said.
"The trend of much higher national visitor numbers looks likely to continue."
Data from Whanganui's i-Site Visitor Centre showed the district had around double the number of domestic visitors during December compared to the same month the previous year, with the number of Auckland and Wellington-based visitors also increasing significantly.
Local businesses needed to make the most of the opportunity, Chaplow said, with more visitors coming, both for events and longer holidays.
"Most of the feedback we get is overwhelmingly positive, but we do hear comments about businesses and services being closed at key times.
"While we understand how important lifestyle is to businesses and service providers in Whanganui, we know that to keep growing we need to work on our supply – not just our demand."
NZ Glassworks gallery assistant Jackie Wilkie said they had been noticeably busier last year.
"We certainly have been. We have very busy actually. All through last year, we are getting lots of visitors from all over the place, from Wellington to the South Island and more."
She said it had been a bit quieter during the past month, but from mid-2020 through to Christmas they were very busy.
"We've had lots of sales. It has tapered off a bit recently but we certainly can't complain."
Tracy Hawker, who owns La Station Design Store, FiftyFive and an Airbnb, echoed Wilkie's analysis.
"Definitely have been busier. Since Covid last year, we've been super busy. We were blown away, it's really positive. We live in such a beautiful town."
Hawker said people who have never come to Whanganui are really enjoying the time spent here.
"We are sending furniture over the country. They come in and then we send it straight from our wholesaler.
"We had someone from Invercargill come in over the weekend who had come up from Wellington for the day and was blown away by our town."
Hawker, who owns an Airbnb above La Station, said people would be lucky to find a time when there are more than two days a week free.
"It's really central. We have a lot of regulars that use it during the week and then tourists who stay there over the weekend."
The more Kiwis that are exploring Whanganui, the better, Hawker said.
"We are one of the luckiest regions. We were never really an international tourist spot. We [with the borders closed] have actually seen an increase with Kiwis exploring the country. It's great."
Chaplow said businesses that opened over peak holiday periods had noticed a surge in visitor numbers, and others that had remained closed had indicated they would reconsider their opening hours in future.
Whanganui i-Site staff have also stressed the need for businesses to update their hours online so visitors looking for shops, cafes, restaurants and service providers could more easily find what was available.