3 Mar 2020

Coronaivrus: Rotorua tourism businesses feeling the pinch

12:19 pm on 3 March 2020

The impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak on tourism in one of the country's best known destinations, Rotorua, is starting to bite for some businesses, while others say the worst is yet to come.

A group of people visiting the geothermal pools in Wai-O-Tapu park.

A group of people visiting the geothermal pools in Wai-O-Tapu park. Photo: 123RF

The current travel ban prevents foreigners entering New Zealand if they are coming from or have transited through mainland China and Iran in the past 14 days. New Zealand citizens and permanent residents are not part of the ban. Foreigners entering the country who have been to or are coming from northern Italy or South Korea in the last 14 days are now required to self-isolate.

The spread of the virus around the world is having a big impact on travel plans for many tourists.

An estimated 3.5 million people visit Rotorua each year - 42 percent of them are from overseas and the rest domestic.

Together they spend about $842 million a year in the region.

Chinese tourists rank fourth behind Australia, the United States and the UK/Europe in numbers visiting Rotorua.

Destination Rotorua head Michelle Templer said the number of Chinese visitors had already slowed down after incredibly high growth between 2016 and 2018.

Destination Rotorua chief executive Michelle Templer.

Destination Rotorua chief executive Michelle Templer. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

She said the Chinese market was still very important to both Rotorua and the country.

''There's a misconception, people didn't think they were big spenders but they are keen to do a range of activities, they spend well, they tend to stay overnight in destinations and they move around fairly quickly.''

Templer said while Chinese coming to New Zealand in tour groups had been the norm, more and more younger Chinese have been visiting as independent travellers.

Tourism is one of Rotorua's biggest employers.

''Around 23 percent and it makes for a significant proportion of GDP, so it does have quite a wide impact and you can see that through our accommodation sector, through hospitality but also industries which supply a lot of those tourism operators," Templer said.

Templer said tourist operators in Rotorua are resilient.

''It's been through some pretty tough times in the past and people have learnt a lot from that.''

Rotorua Motel Association vice chairperson Nick Fitzgerald said the fall-off in international bookings was not restricted to the Chinese market.

''Personally my business - while we don't have many Chinese nationals at all - but we have seen a number of cancellations particularly over the last two weeks and they are from people from all around the world, so it is going to have a very wide effect.''

He said the timing could not have come at a worse time.

''It's come at a time when we would expect to see Rotorua at capacity and businesses doing particularly well.''

Fitzgerald said some businesses were more exposed than others.

''It has affected everyone regardless of if they have Chinese visitors of not.''

He said even if the virus was quickly contained, it would be too late for those who had planned to visit New Zealand.

''They have already assessed the risk for themselves and said we will put New Zealand off for another time. We won't get those bookings back and those people simply won't travel to New Zealand.''

Fitzgerald was feeling a little pessimistic, particularly with the first case of the virus here in New Zealand being announced last Friday.

''I suspect it is going to get a lot worse over the coming months, but as a destination Rotorua has a good mix of tourists that come in and remembering it is not just tourists who come to stay at accommodation as well and a wide range of people travel to Rotorua, and I do hope that will continue.''

Polynesian Spa chief executive Gert Taljaard said visitors to its geothermal pools were roughly evenly split between those from overseas and people from New Zealand.

Polynesian Spa facility in Rotorua.

Polynesian Spa facility in Rotorua. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

He was not surprised by what had happened since the spread of the novel coronavirus.

''History with the Chinese market tells us at times there are events that impact their travel patterns and most certainly it was on my radar to monitor what the potential impacts of this might be.''

Taljaard said individual businesses coped differently and he did not think tourism companies were at the point yet of having to lay off staff.

''I think it has potential to impact the economy in a wider sense, also the local economy, but I don't think we are quite at that point as yet.''

Polynesian Spa chief executive Gert Taljaard.

Polynesian Spa chief executive Gert Taljaard. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

He said it was difficult to know just when the situation would become very difficult.

''It would be up to each individual business as to ... how they have plans against something like that,'' he said.

Rotorua Canopy Tours is an adventure tourism business taking people to a regenerating native forest about 13km from the city. It is there that about 33,000 visitors a year use ziplines and suspended tree bridges above the forest canopy.

Its general manager, Paul Button, said until now the number of international visitors including Chinese had been on a par with last year but the outlook was not so bright.

Rotorua Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button.

Rotorua Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

He said forward bookings were dropping and he assumed it was because of the virus.

Button said he believed that when people started travelling again, the Chinese market would erupt aggressively and tourism operators would need to be ready.

''It will be amazing but I think the dip is going to be challenging and as a country we need to support each other to keep supporting local businesses.''

Michelle Templer from Destination Rotorua said the longer the virus crisis continued the harder it would become.

''Not only tourist operators, but the wider sectoral impact so the number one thing still is, you know, the protect of the public's health and well being.''

She is encouraging New Zealanders to still go on holiday, but to stay in their own country instead of going overseas.

Motelier Nick Fitzgerald was also in agreement.

''I think now is the time to increase our marketing spend domestically and in Australia and create campaigns to get more New Zealanders and Australians travelling through winter.''

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