Time for planning: departing tourism boss

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Tourism New Zealand’s outgoing boss suggests Queenstown’s new council develop a vision for handling runaway visitor numbers.

Kevin Bowler, who finishes next Friday after helming the country’s tourism marketing body for seven years, was in Queenstown this week for a Tourism NZ board meeting.

Bowler says at the current rapid rate of growth, NZ’s inbound visitors – currently 3.4 million a year – will double in just seven years.

Asked his advice for the new council, he says: “You’ve got to deal with today’s stuff that’s creaking and breaking.

“But the big thing that needs to happen is the people running the town need to sit down and go, ‘OK, what does twice as many visitors look like for this town, and how do we give them not just a good experience but an outstanding experience?’

“That’s about masterplanning your transport, your hotel accommodation, your underground services and everything else.

“You can’t not think 10 and 20 years [ahead] and maybe even more, and go, ‘oh, do we need some sort of light rail or bus lane?”‘

Bowler says it’s very hard to cap visitor numbers.

“You might be able to slow it down a wee bit but people are going to want to come, and they’re valuable, and Queenstown captures the most valuable ones.”

Bowler says NZ tourism numbers started rising three or four years ago at the time the first Hobbit movie was released.

“I think we’ve been a little bit fortunate with some of the unrest and the terrorism stuff in Europe, it’s probably helped us a little bit more.”

Pete’s Dragon, the newly-released Disney movie, which was shot in NZ, including Queenstown, is already helping, he says.

“In the United States, a third of people who are what we call ‘active considerers’ are aware that it was made in NZ and 91 per cent of them are saying they’re more interested in coming here because they’ve seen the film.”

Queenstown, he believes, has also benefited from Christchurch’s disastrous earthquakes.

“I think Christchurch, and the lack of accommodation, has driven people to spend more nights down this way, and there’s a slight risk it might go the other way when we start running out of rooms and the prices [go up].”

Asked if NZ tourism’s in danger of putting too many eggs in the China basket, Bowler concedes there are “massive risks”.

“It’s still only 400,000 of our 3.4 million, but growing fast.”

It would be “really horrific” if that market seized up.

“We think about that quite a lot, that’s why we’re spending so much money in India, why we’re spending more money in the US – we’re trying to spread the risk.”

He notes that since two American airlines recommenced services to NZ in the middle of the year, monthly US visitor numbers have been 40 to 50 per cent ahead of the same month last year.

Bowler, who’s joining Frucor Beverages as its NZ boss, admits he won’t be visiting Queenstown so much for work.

But he’ll continue coming for leisure – starting next month when he runs the Queenstown half-marathon.

“I love coming here, not just Queenstown, but the whole area.”

scoop@scene.co.nz