Innovation propels Wakatipu tourism

Back in the day: Shotover Jet in 1964 PICTURE: SHOTOVER JET

While bungy jumping at the old Kawarau Gorge suspension bridge cemented Queenstown as the adventure capital of the world, a few other blokes shaped modern tourism through innovation, grit and some old-fashioned Kiwi ingenuity. Reporter Louise Scott dives into our recent past

Before Skyline’s Gondola perched above Queenstown, some No. 8 wire ingenuity was used to truck tourists up Bob’s Peak.

In 1961, Ian Hamilton bulldozed a steep road up the mountain and started ferrying tourists by van. Keen walkers also used the track and folk would get a certificate at the summit for their effort.

Hamilton was joined by others, Hylton Hensman, Jon Dumble and Cliff Broad, setting up Skyline Tours, a forerunner to today’s Skyline Enterprises. The new business partners built a chalet in 1963 serving up grub to those who worked up a thirst or hunger during their climb or sightseeing ventures.

Barry Thomas, former Skyline chairman, came on board in 1966, prompted by talk of a new gondola project.

He says it was Hensman’s vision but he didn’t have the funds to do it.

“I think they managed to raise something like was enough to buy a Pomagalski lift.”

Thomas was brought in as finance man and, with the backing of 16 shareholders, work started on a new cableway.

It wasn’t a complete walk in the park. Skyline had a couple of rows with the then Queenstown Borough Council, which wanted a cut of the profits.

After some bartering, consent was granted.

The first rides took off on November 3, 1967, carrying 1200 people over the day.

The business banked on ferrying about 50,000 per year but it jumped to 100,000 fairly quickly, surprising bosses.

“We believed in Queenstown, the sheer beauty of it and what it had to offer. I doubt we really envisaged how successful it would become. We had all put such a lot of effort into it and tourism was starting to grow,” Thomas says.

Around the same time Shotover Jet was about to start its success story.

The Melhop brothers launched it as a fundraiser for Christian Youth Camps in 1965, but the following year it was sold to Herm Palmer, who ferried about 3300 in the first year.

In stepped Trevor Gamble in 1970. The Invercargill bricklayer had never driven a boat in his life but he made it an adventure attraction, including the introduction of the famous Big Red boats.

During Shotover’s 50th birthday celebrations last year, he told Mountain Scene the decision to make it a thrill ride was down to one old dear who complained he wasn’t going fast enough or close enough to the rocks.

“She didn’t feel she was getting her money’s worth. I had to upgrade it to stop her moaning.”

Cableway: Construction of the gondola in 1967 PICTURE: LAKES DISTRICT MUSEUM
Cableway: Construction of the gondola in 1967

He wasn’t the only business dipping a toe in the water.

Rafting was also starting to grow in popularity.

Lakes District Museum boss David Clarke says it started quite sedately in the early 1970s when Kon Tiki rafts ran a trip on Shotover River.

“In 1974, Dale and Anne Gardiner led the way with adventure rafting, recognising the potential of the Shotover River’s rapids. They brought in American guides who passed their skills on to local boatmen like JR McCormack and Geoff Hunt.

“In the ’80s and ’90s rafting was one of the biggest adventure activities in the district.”

(It also turned out to be unsafe, with four rafting deaths in 1994 and 1995 making headlines around the world and leading to greater regulation. Skyline also had dark days – a gondola cablecar fell to the ground in 1974, leaving two elderly American women dead.)

In 1988, AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch changed the nature of adventure tourism globally, firmly placing Queenstown as the adventure capital of the world. It was time for bungy.

Van Asch says the introduction of bungy made Queenstown a year-round destination.

“It paved the way and opened people’s minds. Bungy attracted the attention of media from all around the world and it was quite a phenomenon at the time. We were able to make safe danger.

“They [media] all came down here. Camera crews took the message out around the world and made it explode. It definitely hit the spot, but we definitely didn’t expect it to become as big as it did.”

The bungy success coincided with backpacker buses trundling into town – bringing with it a conveyor belt of young people.

Clarke reckons these innovations secured the Wakatipu as a truly international destination. It has also shaped the town.

“Small owner-operated companies still exist, but have given way to large company-run, mass-tourism ventures.

“Activities of every kind have opened up since the 1980s catering for both the passive and adventure markets, representing all age groups.”

With increased tourists the hospo industry also surged – with a wealth of bars, pubs and restaurants catering to growing demands, ensuring Queenstown and the surrounding district continues to attract visitors from around the globe.

This is the last in Mountain Scene’s Where We Come From series, exploring the history of the Wakatipu with help from Lakes District Museum and, this week, the book ‘Skyline: A New Zealand Tourism Success Story’