7 Jan 2021

Covid-19: Franz Josef businesses in limbo

From Summer Times, 9:07 am on 7 January 2021

Franz Josef may have seen a small boost in business since Christmas but many residents are worried about the West Coast glacier town's long-term future.

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

The town has noticed a small boost from locals travelling over Christmas and the New Year, but reservations from next week onwards look grim. 

Alpine Glacier Motel manager and Snakebite Brewery and Restaurant owner, Mark Gibson, told Summer Times with Jesse Mulligan a surge in domestic tourism over the past 10 days had been welcome.

"Prior to that, we had somewhat of a ghost town for many months... Unfortunately, it's [the surge] not something that looks to last past another few days and the figures look to fall away again back to pre-Christmas levels."

The South Island town relies on international visitors during the peak summer months. 

"We're just not getting the numbers here," Gibson said. "As a visitor from Winton said to me just prior to Christmas ... 'is it usually like this here?' and I said 'Quiet?' and she said 'that's an understatement, this is apocalyptic'.

"Recently, we surveyed the village and the results of the survey were fairly dire with businesses who responded showing they are 81-90 percent reduced in their turnovers.

"Eight out of those 10 businesses surveyed said they couldn't trade beyond February-March of this year, such is the state of it. That would see another 100 jobs lost in the village ... it's quite a significant impact."

Domestic tourists "have been rarer than the rowi kiwi prior to Christmas", Gibson said.

Hiking at the Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand. Travel, toursim.

Photo: ruslankphoto.com / 123RF

Reservations and bookings were the only marker they had to measure their market, which showed there was a drop coming next week, he said.

"Which has resulted in the last couple of days of one motel - fairly new motel - closure ... They just can't afford to continue to trade.

"We've seen a lot of people move away, a lot of skilled people too. We lost chefs, builders - our number of residents has dropped, we've fallen away from about 1000 to 300 people. So we've had a significant drop in our population here.

"We do rely on those people to build roads and our emergency services, our ambulances, fire brigades and many services around the area."

Gibson said while some regions had experienced a "post-lockdown boom", they had not been as fortunate.

"We're not seeing that here, we've fairly much been devastated by the effects of this and we're not alone, I know there are other towns as well. We don't have a lot else to fall back on. 

"The community as a whole is pulling very tight together, obviously this winter is going to be the hardest time to get through. It's great to see the town coming together this way."

Helicopter landing on Franz Josef Glacier, South Island.

Photo: 123RF

Traditionally, local businesses had survived on trading primarily through five months of the year - summer ones, he said.

"It's normally very quiet here in winter, we don't have a ski season or any other thing to get us through the winter months. Generally, we try and trade profitably over the summer which gets us through the winter months, and we can carry our staff through the winter by trading well in summer."

Gibson said locals were in hardship and some were in desperate situations. 

"We've got one chap who works for us at the motel, his wife works at the restaurant, they're expecting a child - they brought their first home just prior to Covid and both of them are in a precarious situation now where they could see the end of those jobs before winter."

He said businesses were hoping for some targeted funded, such as wage subsidies, to pull through, or even better - visitors coming to the town to support them.

There are a number of operators in the area, including hot pools and tubs, helicopter guides, mini motels and restaurants and bars, he said. 

"We'd be thrilled to see anybody here. We've got hundreds of kilometres of beautiful nature walks, our glaciers are still there ... we've got plenty of snow on the peaks at the moment. We've got some beautiful coastland and wetland to explore, the birdlife here is sensational ... we've got a lot of outdoor activities - sky diving, flights over the areas. It's a pretty stunning part of the country."

Kea bird, franz josef glacier, new zealand

Photo: imagex/123RF