15 Sep 2020

'I want to see proof' - Tourism operator urges inquiry over Covid-19 recovery funding

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 15 September 2020

A South Island tourism operator says the way more than $40 million in tourism grants has been dished out is unfair, and he is among a group of business owners considering legal action. 

Fiordland Jet co-owner Chris Adams says it would have been very difficult for many companies to fit the government's strict criteria so early on into the Covid-19 pandemic, and he wants answers from Minister of Tourism Kelvin Davis. 

Adams told Checkpoint many companies had just come out of a very successful summer season, but he now wishes they had applied, as they need it.

"Everything's wrong with it. No-one in the tourism industry started off by asking for handouts," he said. 

"We have good times and bad times, and you soldier on through. But with this programme, it was letting people apply under financial duress, and I don't think too many people could have applied for that.

"Very few people, if any, after coming out of a great summer season could say they'd financially used all the avenues 10 weeks into Covid-19."

Adams said he did not think his business qualified for the funding. 

"One of the [criteria is] being a major player. Based in Te Anau, there are no major players, we're a whole lot of little outfits that stay together to make a town what it is, and encourage tourists to come. So, no. 

"In my opinion, we are the best and we are the most important tourism business in Te Anau, but we definitely couldn't have signed to say that we had exhausted all financial [avenues] and that we were a major player and significant to the town. All the tourist operators are significant to the town.

"We did not apply because looks like we were too honest." 

Adams said after seeing who else had been given funding help he was disappointed for not applying. 

"Smaller operators that were 10 weeks in after having a great summer season - tourism has been outstanding for the last few years - could sign their name to that. They've now got half a million each to go in competition to us, and it's a struggle, it's now an uneven playing field."

Adams said a number of tourism operators were looking to see if there was legal action to "level the playing field up". 

"We're just asking the question… I sent an email through officials to the Minister of Tourism and to this day the only email I've had back was after two-and-a-half weeks from some side kick of his saying, they'd received my email, and we'd get a reply in due course. Well, we had two weeks to apply, they've had now three-and-a-half weeks, and haven't even got the decency to give me an answer of why the setup is like it is."

He said he was now talking to a lawyer to see what the options were.

"Let's have a review. There's a high chance there'll be another Covid in the future. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again so companies like us aren't left high and dry." 

Adams wanted to see some proof that those companies granted financial help actually needed it. 

"Heads need to roll, it gets to the stage that some of these people in the middle management of these government departments have no skin in the game. There's no accountability, and they've just made some companies and they've finished some companies, and have set rules that some of us, most of us didn't apply for." 

In Checkpoint's Tourism debate, Davis said: "What we're trying to do with the tourism recovery fund is to try and spread it as wide as we could to make sure we got the biggest impact. So the initial part was $17 million went to the tourism transitions fund to help businesses to either pivot to the domestic market or hibernate or to explore other options.

"We had to make decisions, we had to draw lines in the sand somewhere and that's exactly what we did. The process was open, it is transparent, and of course there are going to be some people who didn't receive funding… We've always said from the outset that we couldn't save every business in every job but we had to make decisions."