A Wakatipu scribbler


Sinclair Lewis famously wrote that Chicago’s meatworks used every part of a pig but the squeal. Queenstowners extract maximum value from tourists, too.

Tourism shines as a foreign-currency earner. Critics say the underlying accommodation industry tends to be heavy in relatively low-paid, fairly unskilled, frequently casual jobs. They say it provides few promotion paths and often relies on foreign workers.

Yet luxury lodges such as Blanket Bay, increasingly sophisticated management, training and skilled chefs all indicate the critics over-generalise.

Regardless, the Queenstown hotel, motel, apartment or backpacker bed is just the first link in the value chain.

Only a jaded tourist leaves Queenstown with an unbruised credit card. The resort fairly sings with adventure attractions, sports from skiing to angling, great local wine, a nostalgic steamship and steam train, a tourism air force, casinos, restaurants, gold panning and shops.

The local economy even seems to mine backpackers. Bed, bungy jump, beer, pick vines, increasingly looks to be their mantra.

This sense of enterprise is the most striking impression gained from four years writing BizScene. The pioneer spirit lives on in Queenstown. It means actually doing – rather than the easy way of dream, grizzle, lobby.

The spirit somehow survived from when every rock could cover a gold nugget and you had to dirty your hands to find out. No pessimist named the Remarkables.

Perhaps a remote lifestyle that included mustering, skiing, hunting, guiding, climbing, pioneer flying and small mines kept the entrepreneurial spark flickering while the country cooled during three-quarters of a century of welfare state.

Sadly, the outlook still looks difficult for Wakatipu property developers, subcontractors and workers and their families. Recovery could be slow.

“Bad banks” being created in America and Europe to hold hundreds of billions of dollars worth of doubtful debt will drag on world taxpayers for years.

The Wakatipu’s senior citizens also face tight times with low interest rates on their savings.

This follows heavy losses in finance company crashes.

With local bodies certain to return to bond issues to fund more than $30 billion of infrastructure spending, a government could well introduce tax incentives for investors in ultra-safe council bonds.

This would divert savings from property, where returns are usually tax-free capital gains. In turn, this could starve developers of loan capital.

A resurfaced problem is the rare use of “turnaround” experts.

Examples of saved companies include retailer Smiths City after the 1980s property crash and the current Michael Mellon effort with Otago technology company Botry-Zen. Sadly, few big creditors give company doctors a chance.

Meanwhile we face national challenges. These include current-account deficits, a huge government sector, debt, and poor meshing of higher education with job skills.

Then there’s the Auckland Super City’s coming political clout. New York would have about 100 million people if it had the same proportion of America’s population as Auckland does of Kiwis.

Resultant weak currency and growing Tasman business could cushion Queenstown. Only our sporting obsession explains why Kiwis under-rate Australia’s economic importance to NZ.

This contrasts with cheers for successive trade saviours: Asian suburbs of radiata pine, Chinese babies rosy-cheeked on our milk, food-mile prejudiced Greenies demanding our organic food, windmills, biofuel, Sheikh Shadbolt’s Great South Basin oil.

Good trading.

Neill Birss’s column is taking a winter break