Hotels brace for ‘carnage’

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Who’d be a hotelier right now during this worldwide Covid-19 pandemic? With thousands of Queenstown hotel beds lying empty, and the likelihood it could be ages away before New Zealand reopens its borders for international arrivals, PHILIP CHANDLER talks to three local hoteliers about their short- and long-term prospects

Pessimistic in the short term, optimistic in the long term.

That’s how three Queenstown hoteliers view the future of their businesses, with the Covid-19 pandemic likely to restrict guests country’s out of lockdown Kiwis only for the foreseeable future.

Which is tough, of course, for a resort used to receiving 70 per cent of its visitors from overseas.

“The [short-term] future is carnage,” The Rees’ Mark Rose says.

“Queenstown has always been in this unique position of being the tourist mecca for New Zealand, and it’s going to play very much against us for the next, I would have thought, six to eight months.”

He’s “really struggling” to understand why people would think domestic tourism – NZers travelling to Queenstown – would be our panacea, albeit the ski season could be “a bit of a shot in the arm”.

“There could be some come down, but I just don’t think in volumes.

“If you’re worried about losing your job, if you’ve lost your job, if you’re worried about a fairly big outbreak in Queenstown, I just don’t see why you’d be risking flying in the next three, four or five months.”

Publicity on the Queenstown Lakes’ high incidence of Covid-19 hasn’t helped our case, he says.

“Now, I hope I’m completely wrong.”

To get things moving again, he considers the “obvious” first step is the much-touted tourism ‘bubble’ with Australia – “then with Singapore, then maybe Taiwan, Korea and then, dare I say it, China”.

“As all those countries manage to stamp it out, I guess we’d be looking to them as our economic bubbles, but the only way we really get out of this is a vaccine.”

Rose gives it three years “before we get back to any semblance of where we were before”.

Graham Wilkinson, who owns the high-end Sofitel and St Moritz hotels, also doubts Kiwis will fill hotels till NZ’s borders open again.

‘Temporary blip, albeit a big one’: Sofitel/St Moritz owner Graham Wilkinson

“If you’re up in Auckland, are you going to be that keen to get on a plane?

“You’ll have to fly the plane first.”

It’s more likely, he suggests, Aucklanders would holiday, for example, in nearby Bay of Islands.

On the other hand, he believes a trans-Tasman travel could be undertaken subject to health protocols, would hugely benefit Queenstown.

“The government should be doing everything possible to put in place protocols.

“You imagine the number of people in Australia who go to Bali and other places.

“Well, they’d all have to come here, wouldn’t they?”

Though “we’re clearly in the shit for anywhere between nine and 24 months”, Wilkinson has no doubt Queenstown will bounce back.

“If you think about it, we’re the only true alpine, four-seasons tourist town in the southern hemisphere, we’re a beautiful place, we’re Kiwis, people will come back, there’s no question about that.

“If you deal with the positives, we’ve done so well in terms of keeping the deaths down and enhancing our reputation as being that ‘100 per cent pure’ safe haven that you might find the numbers spike up.

“Fundamentally, this is a temporary blip, albeit a big one, on the long-term future of Queenstown.”

Something that will help existing operators, he suggests, is that plans for other large-scale hotels – including one he’s planned for Brecon Street – will be put on the backburner for a while.

“We’ll probably get an additional ‘holiday’ period before you see too much supply coming on.”

Hilton boss Chris Ehmann, who’s understood to have given redundancy notices to 150 of his 230 staff, also believes relying solely on domestic tourism will be “pretty challenging”.

Challenging times: Hilton general manager Chris Ehmann

Though if the ski season comes off, “that would be quite positive – it’s a reason to come”.

Like Rose and Wilkinson, he thinks a travel Australia would be “phenomenally helpful”.

His only worry is that Queenstown would then be chasing the same dollar, with cheap deals on offer, as every other tourist destination in Australasia.

“We’re a dynamic place, we’ve got a lot to offer, so down the track it will be fine.”

But meantime, if he could get his hotel occupancy up to 30 per cent by December, he’d be “super, super happy”.

scoop@scene.co.nz