The earthquake has thrown up major challenges for the Christchurch tourism industry, says Tim Hunter, chief executive Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism (CCT).
“There is still a perception off-shore that the entire city has been wiped out by the disaster. This has definitely contributed to the sharp dip in visitor numbers from our key markets of Australia, Japan and Korea since the earthquake.”
CCT is now in the unique position of trying to restore confidence in a city without its vibrant central tourism and cultural hub, and 50 percent of its commercial accommodation providers.
Hunter says that the $1.6 million funding boost announced last month (a joint initiative from the Ministry of Economic Development, Christchurch City Council and Christchurch International Airport) is “vitally important” to enable CCT to stabilise its business and operations and rebuild existing tourism and travel activity.
“This fund will help us to inform offshore sellers and trade media that the damage in Christchurch is localised, and that the city still has plenty to offer visitors, in addition to being an important gateway for the whole South Island tourism sector.”
The drop in international visitors is being felt widely, with other South Island regions reporting tourism business is down by as much as 30 to 40 percent.
Hunter says that CCT is particularly focused on restoring confidence to the Australian market which accounts for 70 percent of holiday visitors to the city.
“We’re currently working in a joint venture with other South Island regional tourism groups to develop a self-drive concept to attract Australian visitors next summer. This will promote the best South Island road trips that utilise the gateways of Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown.”
Hunter expects the independent traveller sector (couples, family groups and backpackers) to recover fastest, as it is the easiest to provide with accommodation solutions. The key is to encourage these visitors not to “fly in and drive off” but to spend a night or two in Christchurch and participate in tourism activities in the suburbs or wider Canterbury region, he says. “Some of the main local tourist attractions are already down 60-80 percent and their will be continuing impact on the viability of these businesses if people don’t stay here.”
Coach tour operators are already by-passing the city and accommodating their passengers in larger hotels in the wider Canterbury region, says Hunter.
“I’d like to think they’ll be back in the city by the 2012-2013 summer – we’re going to work hard company by company to make that happen.”
The $100 million a year conference and convention market has also been badly affected by the quake, says Hunter. “It’s just not possible for us to host large-scale events given the lack of hotel accommodation and venues like the Convention Centre, Town Hall and AMI Stadium being out of action.”
It could be two or three years before this market is restored, he says.
“This is completely dependent on when hotels are repaired or rebuilt and the Convention Centre is back up and running. We have conferences booked out to 2015 and are determined not to lose these. We hope that 2013 will be the year we can turn things around and get this market back on track.” On the flip side, Christchurch motels have been trading strongly – mainly from housing displaced residents and recovery workers rather than the tourist market. Another positive has been the arrival of Air Asia in Christchurch on 1 April. “This couldn’t have come at a better time as Air Asia has poured a large number of Malaysian visitors into the South Island. The majority of them are independent, self-drivers who are spending up to two weeks travelling around the South Island. This has helped mitigate the fall in visitor numbers from Australia and Japan.”
Hunter admits it will be a tough year for the tourism sector in Canterbury but says it will “get through”.
“With 85 percent of arrivals into the South Island through Christchurch it is a very significant gateway for tourism. We have to keep it very strong – not just for Christchurch but for the whole South Island tourism economy.”