'Guessing in the dark': Tourist operators face uncertainty over travel bubble

Hopeful but frustrated thats the reaction of South Island tourist businesses to news that details of a promised trans-Tasman travel bubble are another fortnight away.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday she would not announce when quarantine-free borders could reopen with Australia until April 6.

New Zealanders flying home now must spend 14 days in managed isolation, with non-Kiwis only allowed in by approval.

The border closure had been a long, long, long time for a small business, Ko Tne co-director Dave Brennan said. His business, Waka on Avon, runs waka river trips on the Avon River in Christchurch.

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Dave Brennan of Waka on Avon, pictured with the companys custom-built waka, says tourism businesses need a date for the trans-Tasman tourist bubble.

I would just like a decision, a date. The most important thing its going to do is put some confidence back into the industry, he said on Monday.

Brennan said before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, 90 per cent of their customers were Australian. Reopening the border would double their business by Christmas, and restart plans to build new riverbank premises, he said.

When we know, we can start planning.

He was not fazed by the prospect of snap closures in the case of Covid outbreaks, and expected they would get better at dealing with that scenario.

Aaron Russ, whose Christchurch-based Heritage Expeditions runs tours to Fiordland and the subantarctic islands, said the pandemic has had a huge impact on the business, and the sector 100 per cent needed certainty.

You are guessing in the dark, and we have been for the last 12 months, Russ said.

Aaron Russ, of Heritage Expeditions, says opening the bubble will be sanity prevailing.

Gearing back up to be ready for overseas tourists again would involve a large investment of time, money and staff, he said.

Opening a travel bubble would be sanity prevailing.

Surely mixing two populations with no Covid, equals no Covid.

Tourism New Zealand research indicates that 2.3 million Australians want to travel to New Zealand within six months of a bubble opening.

Kath Low, head of tourism at ChristchurchNZ, said 47 per cent of overseas tourists to Canterbury in the year before Covid were Australians, making the bubble a key driver of the regions recovery.

Our tourism-related sectors have all taken a huge hit, and the trans-Tasman bubble is the shot in the arm they all need.

Joseph Johnson/Stuff
Advertising signs for Canterbury tourist events sit alongside For Lease signs on vacant shops in tourist complex Cathedral Junction in central Christchurch.

Low said they expected Christchurch to be an early beneficiary of a bubble, particularly if it opened in time for the South Island ski season, which typically began in June.

Government figures revealed New Zealands had a two-speed tourist economy since Covid, with the North Island faring much better than the south.

In January, traditionally the busiest month for tourism, many North Island destinations had more visitors this year than the previous January as New Zealanders holidayed locally.

South Island destinations, heavily dependent on international tourists, were hit hardest, with Fiordland losing more than half its trade from the previous January, and Queenstown and the Mackenzie country down by a third.

Christchurch airports chief aeronautical and commercial officer, Justin Watson, said 1.4 million passengers flew across the Tasman into Christchurch in the year before Covid.

If there is a bubble theres no reason why we wouldnt see this level or even higher, as there is a lot of pent-up demand, he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces there will be an announcement in April on the Australia travel bubble.

Before the border closure, the airport handled an average of 32 trans-Tasman arrivals and departures daily, including cargo flights.

We do know there is strong interest from airlines, and we expect to see the Tasman [route] perform very well.

He said the airport had been ready and safe for months for trans-Tasman passengers, and all frontline staff had been vaccinated.

The airport had started construction to divide its international arrivals lounge in two separate areas:eek:ne for arrivals from Australia and one for the rest.

Watson said they were also making changes to allow for separate cleaning and processing of red and green flights.

Ben Patton, owner of central Christchurch restaurant Francesca's Italian Kitchen, said Arderns announcement was a bit disappointing but it was promising that the bubble would happen.

For us it's when that date's going to be. If we can get it in place for the traditional ski season, I think that would be a boon for the South Island, he said.

If it's delayed ... it's still going to be a difficult few months for the industry as a whole to grind along.

The restaurant relied on neighbouring hotels and the Isaac Theatre Royal next door for diners, he said.

As long as those guys are still struggling, we're going to struggle as well. Until there's some sort of stability we'll probably continue to see places close over the next few months.

Huw Miles/Supplied
Packrafting Queenstown will be making plans before travel bubble decisions are released.

Huw Miles, owner of hiking and paddling business Packrafting Queenstown, said the extra time would give operators the opportunity to strategise a little bit.

I'm pleased that we've got a lead into it. I'm also really heartened to hear the criteria by which they are going to open up.

Businesses in Queenstown breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing the announcement, he said.

While there had been some very loud voices in Queenstown wanting to reopen, doing it safely was essential.

What we don't want is to open up and lockdown because we couldn't get it right.


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