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Dire times: Queenstown hostel owner Brett Duncan, who's also on the NZ Backpacker Youth and Adventure Tourism Association

By MATTHEW MCKEW

If something doesn’t change, Queenstown’s once thriving hostel industry will collapse — and, yet again, visas are a crucial issue.

It’s led to a suggestion internationals living in Australia, who’ve already had  working holiday visa in New Zealand, should be granted a second one.

The request, from the NZ Backpacker Youth and Adventure Tourism Association (BYATA), comes amid growing fears jobs are going begging and businesses will eventually have to close.

Brett Duncan, who sits on the board and chairs the hostels division, says internationals would jump at the chance to come back to NZ when a quarantine-free trans-Tasman bubble opens.

He says while Aussies will be key for the cash registers, this ‘‘one-time’’ visa would also provide a ready labour pool of people who spend.

Young workers in hostels, tourism and hospitality, on working holiday visas, predominantly come from Germany, the US and UK — and routes to those countries aren’t likely to be open any time soon, Duncan says.

‘‘Usually there’s about 55,000 working holiday visa holders in NZ and there’re currently less than 13,000 and it’s falling every week.

‘‘Hostels are unique, we need many of our staff to live on-site, taking on roles such as fire wardens — and it’s not something Kiwis will do.’’

Recruiting and retaining staff is becoming harder by the day, he says, with several staff at his two venues — Adventure Queenstown and Adventure Q2 — holding visas set to expire.

Duncan paints a bleak picture for his industry if the government fails to act, and says BYATA wants to work positively with the relevant departments.

‘‘If we don’t get a trans-Tasman bubble with quarantine-free travel in both directions by summer, the cracks are going to appear in a lot of hostels around the country — there’s only so long you can run at losses.’’

So far there’s only been one closure in Queenstown, Bumbles Hostel for re-development as a hotel, but Duncan says many are surviving purely on the goodwill of their landlords.

BYATA data shows the resort’s hostels saw an average occupancy level of just 37% between June and September — only 5% more than the national
average.

In normal times, most would expect to be booked at 90% a week in advance.

Duncan explains: ‘‘If I ran 100% full, 365 days a year, I would have to sell beds at an average of $28 a night to break even.

‘‘At the moment, the cheapest bed we are selling is at $21, which in peak season would usually be $35-$36.’’

BYATA wants to see international students return, clear guidelines on how the trans-Tasman bubble will work and under what circumstances it will be granted.

It also wants Immigration NZ to start processing working holiday visa applications from internationals living in Australia.

When Mountain Scene put those ideas to Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi he refused to address them directly.

‘‘The priority is to see job vacancies going to NZers who have lost work and income due to Covid-19.’’

He says employers wanting to retain workers can support staff to get work visas, providing there’s no NZer available for the job.

On the trans-Tasman bubble, Faafoi says it’s subject to ensuring the safety of NZers.

‘‘Any changes, including possible travel bubbles or further visa setting changes, and category exceptions for groups such as foreign students, will be guided by the principles of protecting NZ from the spread of Covid-19 while managing a careful and steady approach to our economic recovery.’’

matthew.mckew@scene.co.nz