Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

‘It’s not pretty out there’ – Auckland tourism bookings down 90 per cent on last year

An Auckland tourism leader hopes the city’s second week of “freedom” will be better than the first, but is worried that the reopening of domestic borders will further damage the hard-hit industry.

Gavin Oliver runs EcoZip Adventures on Waiheke Island and said that after close to four months with no operating income, it was exciting to finally be able to reopen to visitors.

However, numbers were low.

Oliver, who ischair of the Auckland Tourism Regional Forum and deputy chair of Waiheke Island Tourism Incorporated, said speaking with colleagues around the city, the theme seemed to be fairly consistent.

Overall, forward bookings remain as bad as 90 per cent down on the same period last year.

“It’s not pretty out there and the stories I’m hearing are alarming,” he said.

Consumer confidence was important for tourism and he said it appeared brittle in Auckland, whose tourism industry has been hit harder than anywhere else in the country.

Level 3 and 4 lockdowns were imposed inAuckland for 107 days, and shorter periods over the whole country and then parts of Waikato and Northland, since the August MIQ failure let Delta into the community.

Latest electronic card data shows how badly Auckland was hit in October.

Spending of $72 million was down 60 per cent on last year and down 59 per cent on 2019. The total for New Zealand in October was $779m, down just 6 per cent on last year and 22 per cent on 2019. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment figures show five South Island regions – some of which have been targeted for special help by Tourism Minister Stuart Nash – had spending increases in October compared to last year.

Auckland tourism firms have gained from wage subsidy and business resurgence payments for the latest lockdown, and there has also been taxpayer help for those affected by the big-spending Auckland market being confined to the city.

Oliver said one of the biggest problems for tourism was the need to book in advance, and if Covid setting changes were brought in at short notice, it was hard for many people to plan.

That meant the first part of December was a complete fizzer.

Unlike international visitors, domestic tourists would also cancel activities if the weather was no good, so operators were hoping for sunny skies in the lead-up to Christmas.

“The hope is that Aucklanders will start to exercise their new-found freedoms as we get closer to Christmas and we, mutually, start to get into the holiday mood.”

There is currently little midweek demand, though weekend bookings were starting to pick up.

But the opening of Auckland’s borders next week could result in an exodus from the city.

This wouldn’t be counterbalanced by domestic arrivals, who previously made up about 20 per cent of his firm’s summer business.

Auckland, as the centre of the Government’s questionable strategy of locating MIQ in the CBD, had image problems that had hit a tourism industry that was worth $5.2 billion a year before the pandemic.

“Stories of a reluctance to travel to Auckland abound; this includes the cancellation of corporate groups unwilling to bring their non-Auckland based staff into the region,” he said.

“Consequently, it appears likely that the traditional seasonal exodus of Aucklanders won’t, to any measurable degree, be counterbalanced by an influx of visitors to the Auckland region.”

However, he said It was great to be open again and operators were looking forward to summer.

Explore Group runs cruises in Auckland (and Northland) and its managing directorWilliam Goodfellow said Christmas party bookings in the city had been reasonable but the pure tourism operations were slow.

“The more experiential side of the business, whale and dolphin [watching] and sailing have been particularly slow.”

However, the company was fielding inquiries for its multi-day Hauraki Gulf tours after Christmas and was hoping for a long summer.

Goodfellow said Auckland could suffer an image problem. “Some people will move on very quickly but there’s bound to be some wider hesitation.”

Auckland was the main gateway city for international tourists, who under current government plans won’t be able to visit without going through MIQ until next May at the earliest – and even then they will have to spend seven days in self-isolation.

Oliver said this was impractical and the removal of government support would further damage the industry.

“It is clear that businesses reliant on the visitor economy are again going to find things getting a lot worse before they get better.”

A government scheme to support Auckland attractions would be some help, he said.

The $25m Reactivating Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Support Package includes $12m for a voucher and discount programme to encourage families and individuals to visit commercial attractions and council-owned facilities. Attraction and activity operators have to opt in.

About 130 businesses have already shown interest in the scheme. Pam Ford, director of investment and industry at Auckland Unlimited, which is involved in the programme, said the support would go some way to boost the economy and social wellbeing.

“We acknowledge the hardship that our entire destination industry has experienced over the past two years, and particularly during the most recent extended lockdown. All Aucklanders have also had a challenging time with 107 days in lockdown.”

She said Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland was recently named the number one city to visit in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2022, an accolade that sent a strong message that Auckland remains an attractive and safe destination to explore.

“Aucklanders are leading the way in getting vaccinated and that goes some way in promoting our region as one that takes the health and safety of its residents seriously.”

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