Cautious hope for South Island tourism with trans-Tasman bubble on horizon

A quarantine-free trans-Tasman bubble as early as next month has provided hope for some of the South Island's struggling tourism operators but most are approaching the speculation cautiously.
Stuff understands Cabinet is due to make a decision next week, for a mid-April start. It would open unrestricted travel between the two countries for the first time since the pandemic began.

Air New Zealand is already training a few hundred extra staff in preparation, while NZSki, which operates three of the South Island's major skifields, is anticipating hiring 400 new employees.

Lynette Buurman, a manager for dolphin-watching business Encounter Kaikoura, said the bubble was a wonderful prospect. She was hopeful and cautiously optimistic, but said it would be difficult to hire new staff.


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"When you've scaled down your business to exist in the hardship, it's really hard to scale up again.

Encounter Kaikoura was working at 10 per cent capacity and in a small coastal town it was not easy to attract new staff, who would take four to six weeks to train, she said. A mid-April bubble opening would give businesses just under three weeks to prepare.

RAHUL BHATTARAI/Stuff
Lynette Buurman, of Encounter Kaikoura, says the bubble is a wonderful prospect.

However, Buurman said the benefit far outweigh the challenges.

The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Queenstown mayor Jim Boult warned last month an economic crisis was looming in the South Island town, with a growing number of tourism closures.

On Friday, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash said targeted initiatives for the sector were under consideration to support the worst affected communities, but he ruled out a regional wage subsidy.

Supplied
A group on the Franz Josef glacier, a major tourist destination on the West Coast.

Charlie Hobbs, who owns Old Mountaineers Caf and Bar and Southern Alps Guiding at Aoraki/Mt Cook, said Nashs comments lacked substance, and had come too late.

Co-chair of the Glacier Country Tourism Group, Rob Jewell, said he wanted more details on the package as well as the travel bubble.

Franz Josef motel and campground owner Logan Skinner said he was frustrated a bubble had not opened for summer.

Kavinda Herath/Stuff
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash talks about New Zealand tourism in Queenstown.

Now we are going into a winter with nothing in our bank accounts," he said.

Skinner hoped a bubble could allow businesses to break even in winter and then allow them to earn again in summer.

Scenic Circle Group's managing director Brendan Taylor thought the devil would be in the detail.

Taylor, who manages several West Coast hotels, questioned: If Auckland closes down will the South Island still be able to keep its bubble open?"

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff
The Franz Josef township from above. It is a popular destination with tourists.

Denis Columb, who has owned Offroad Adventures in Queenstown for 31 years, said he personally wanted the bubble, but also felt the risk could still to be too high.

"We could cock it up," he said.

At present, 46 people are in hospital with Covid-19 in Australia, according to the federal department of health. It is estimated there are 126 active cases, although these include cases in quarantine hotels.

NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson said he would trust the Government opening the bubble as it had led with a health-first response throughout the pandemic.

NZSki which operates Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Mt Hutt expects to hire 400 employees if the bubble goes ahead.

nzski/supplied
NZSki expects it will hire about 400 new workers if the trans-Tasman bubble opens. (File photo).

Anderson said pre-pandemic, the Australian market made up 40 per cent of customers.

They bring a lot vibrancy and add a lot of economic activity to the region," he said of Australia.

Air New Zealand began training new staff in preparation for the bubble in December, chief executive Greg Foran said.

He estimated it would take three weeks for the airline to be ready to fly routes to Australia. "Obviously we are in a state of preparation now," he said.

RICKY WILSON/Stuff
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran says he is not expecting reluctance from travellers, if a quarantine-free trans-Tasman bubble opens.

If the bubble opened, Air New Zealand would fly into Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and later add flights with Gold Coast, Cairns and Hobart.

Foran did not expect any reluctance from travellers, but rather ''pent-up demand''.

''There are lots of Kiwis living in Australia, and vice versa.''

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