12 May 2020

Tourism Minister's communication with industry 'chaotic' - Haka Tourism boss

From Checkpoint, 6:13 pm on 12 May 2020

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis does not appear to be up to the job and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should take over the portfolio, a tour operator says, as the industry faces collapse due to Covid-19.

Haka Tours General Manager Eve Lawrence told Checkpoint the Tourism Minister needs to provide the industry with some certainty, as domestic travel under level 2 is not going to save tourism operators.

Haka Tours adventure tours throughout New Zealand, including multi-day tours of ski slopes, kayaking, mountain climbing, cultural and beach trips. 

It is potentially facing mass redundancies with New Zealand borders locked down indefinitely under Covid-19 restrictions. 

Davis said the hard-hit tourism sector will receive additional support in the Budget, but that is too late to save many jobs, industry leaders said.

Thousands of tourism jobs have already been cut and some of the biggest names in the industry, like Ngāi Tahu Tourism, are in hibernation.

Tourism leaders spoke to Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee on Tuesday, as New Zealand prepares to move to eased level 2 rules on Thursday, when people will be able to travel around the country again. 

Eve Lawrence said domestic tourism would not come close to meeting the shortfall from the loss of international visitors for her company.

She wants to see the wage subsidy extended from 12 weeks to at least 26 weeks, commercial and unhosted accommodation providers like Airbnb to face the same fees, and support for commercial renters.

"We've already had to cancel all our tours up to October, there's no international visitors coming in, and with the social distancing on tour buses, multi-day tours don't really appeal to domestic customers," Lawrence told Checkpoint

'We won't survive much longer'

She said the only difference the eased level 2 rules makes for her company is the remaining staff will be able to meet to plan a new strategy. 

"We're looking at going from 184 full-time employees down to 13.5 FTE equivalent… We have employed more but they're on reduced hours. I personally am down to two and a half days a week."

The company can target the domestic market, and provide accommodation to travellers, she said, "but realistically we're looking at a best case scenario of potentially 20 percent revenue.

"We've been able to pivot some of our businesses to help out Auckland City Mission and some other government bodies in terms of accommodation for people that need it. 

"So we have got some revenue coming in, and we can survive until potentially March, but if international borders don't reopen, even with 20 percent domestic tourism, we wouldn't survive much longer."

As Covid-19 spread and borders started closing around the world in February and March, Haka Tourism saw a 90 percent decline in tour bookings, Lawrence said.

'Confusion, not clear communication from government ministers'

"It's been chaotic, to be quite honest with you, over the last eight weeks. Confusion, not particularly clear communication from government ministers."

She said she thinks the Tourism Minister is doing his best to speak to all tourism businesses, but communication has not been clear. 

"We need clear timeframes around if this trans-Tasman bubble takes off, how long realistically do they think it's going to take to put measures in place to make that happen.

"We need clear timeframes around whether we can have a wage subsidy extension to keep our people on, and we need clear information around any further financial support because the bottom line is banks aren't lending to tourism businesses. It's a massive risk, cash is king, we don't have cash flow."

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis was grilled by MPs at Tuesday's Epidemic Response Committee. He did not provide detail on government help, but said a funding package would be announced in the Budget on Thursday. 

Lawrence told Checkpoint it is "incredibly disheartening" to hear questions not being answered directly. 

"We need a voice, we need a clear voice for tourism and I just don't feel that we've had one up to this point.

"We've just been getting the same message for six weeks now… Sadly for many the Budget day is already too late.

"We've all made it quite clear, even two weeks ago that we needed to know about the wage extension subsidy yesterday, we don't need to know now, we needed to know two weeks ago.

"Realistically you're looking at a 12-week wage subsidy. During that 12 weeks an employee racks up four to five days of annual leave. That's just additional money that we then need to pay out as a business. So we needed to know weeks ago.

"My concern is that the Budget is already written for Thursday and it was just appeasing us in terms of hearing our voice, [at Tuesday's Epidemic Response Committee] but I'm hoping we made some impact."

Lawrence is hoping for more targeted funding for tourism. 

"If you look at what Australia are doing, they're giving Kiwis AU$765 a week for six months to help them keep their jobs and survive, and I think a six month time frame is realistic.

"So if they extend the wage subsidy for another 12 to 14 weeks, that could really help us get off our feet again and keep our businesses alive."

"The initial wage subsidy was extended to businesses that had received a 30 percent revenue loss or more ... if we were trading at a 30 percent loss right now we would be incredibly happy. I think they do need to raise that threshold if they're going to do a targeted response with additional wage subsidy, potentially look at 50 to 60 percent or more revenue loss.

"Realistically that's what we're looking at. Some businesses are looking at 100 percent."

"We employ a huge percentage of the New Zealand population in the tourism and underpinned industry, and we need that wage subsidy to be extended."

Lawrence said she would like to see Jacinda Ardern as Tourism Minister. 

"She is a fantastic ambassador for New Zealand as far as the press are concerned, she's received fantastic media coverage globally and she would be a fantastic ambassador to get people to visit our country.

"We will be a safe haven and somewhere people want to visit, and I think she would be the perfect person." 

Another issue raised at the Epidemic Response Committee came from NZ Māori Tourism chief executive Pania Tyson-Nathan. She said operators still face high compliance and concession costs despite haemorrhaging money and staff. 

Tyson-Nathan said one small North Island operator with eight staff and a couple of boats pays more than $47,000 in regulation charges excluding tax.

She said businesses need a year's relief from paying the high costs.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts told MPs the industry is expecting a wave of redundancies in June, depending on what is announced in the Budget on Thursday.