A lot can change in 12 months, but one thing remains the same; we seem to have been left
to fend for ourselves.
It’s hard not to feel forgotten as many parts of New Zealand carry on almost oblivious to Covid-19’s impact.
This is nothing new for us.
While Labour is gloriously out of touch with business, governments of all colours have forsaken us for decades, happily taking the GST from our tourist receipts and giving bugger-all back in return.
Former Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis famously forgot us for three years and his replacement, Stuart Nash, has barely registered we exist yet.
Don’t think we will be getting any sympathy from the rest of the ‘team of five million’, either.
Many Kiwis had long since abandoned us as a tourism destination and have great pleasure
in telling us why online.
Any local who dares stand up for the region in response to this suffers a tirade of aggressive cyber vitriol.
So, while much has changed since we first heard of Covid-19, how we survive now and rebuild again won’t be any different to how we have always done things here.
We do the best we can as a tight-knit, hard-working community of innovative problem-solvers with an adventurous spirit.
While I don’t fully agree with previous columnists about a great reset of the global economy and our local tourism industry, I do agree we need to take lessons from this hardship.
Strangely, I covered this off in advance in a column last February.
We knew little about Covid-19 then, except it was impacting Chinese travel and, coupled
with the Milford floods, saw us experiencing our first downturn in tourism growth in nearly a decade.
Back then, many in the town had grown sick of tourism, they were over the popularity and
the associated issues with congestion, affordability, road safety and airport noise.
While I shared many of the concerns, and often lamented the town I first visited in the ‘80s, I warned in response to this negativity that we should “never take tourism nor the
economic growth that rides on its back for granted”.
I also cautioned we couldn’t be pigeon-holed into the higher-end market alone — we saw what happened to this during the GFC, so having a diversified offering is best for resilience and for a vibrant atmosphere.
I had no idea this column would end up reading as a morbid foretelling of our impending situation, but I wouldn’t change the advice.
So, what to do?
Unfortunately, it looks the borders will remain closed, we’re unlikely to have an Aussie bubble any time soon, Kiwis have been and gone for the most part, and we will get little
meaningful government support.
The mayor and tourism leaders have been lobbying government hard, which must be like trying to explain kitchen etiquette to The Swedish Chef and Beaker on The Muppet Show.
But we all need to keep pushing, in spite of the online trolls and the deaf ears of officials.
If NZ wants the $40 billion tourism industry back, it needs to protect the base.
There needs to be something to come back to.
STAPP funding was an attempt.
Unfortunately, like most government policies, it was a well-intentioned shambles and is now being investigated by the Auditor-General.
But there does need to be something nationally.
Very targeted rent support payments and wage subsidies for tourism and hospitality businesses would be hugely useful.
The government has legislated businesses cannot trade fully (closed borders), so even a free market advocate like me sees the rationale for support in this scenario.
Locally, we have proven if backed into a corner we can overcome challenges – the work of the housing taskforce and Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust has resulted in some real momentum with affordable housing using some innovative ownership models.
Hopefully this can provide at least a little inspiration for innovative local partnerships and council leadership to help us through a long 2021.
If we ever do get back to normal, don’t take tourism for granted.
Let’s keep diversifying the local economy, but also welcome back our guests with a smile and some gratitude earned from hard knocks.
Mark Wilson’s a Queenstown-based consultant, true blue National Party supporter, trainer of George and Scoop and formerly a confirmed bachelor