16 Dec 2021

Northland's tourism industry raises concerns over traffic light red setting

6:11 am on 16 December 2021

Northland's tourism operators say that if they can not welcome visitors back to the region soon, there will not be an industry there in the not too distant future.

New Zealand First election night headquarters, the Duke of Marlborough in Russell.

The Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the waterfront of the historic town of Russell. Photo: RNZ / Brad White

Te Tai Tokerau is the only region that will be in the red traffic light setting from 30 December due to its relatively low vaccination rates.

That means no more than 100 people are able to gather for New Year's Eve celebrations.

Few places say summer in New Zealand more than the Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the waterfront of the historic town of Russell and is a favourite for New Years revellers and its operators rely on tourism over summer to keep the home fires burning in the winter months.

Hotel co-owner Riki Kinnaird was more than a little disappointed to learn that Northland would be the only place in New Zealand at the red traffic light setting this New Year's Eve.

"If you're an Aucklander, why wouldn't you go somewhere that you're accepted and you've got the freedoms to enjoy New Year's Eve?

"You won't be able to dance on New Year's at the Duke this year 'cause we're you're in traffic light red. So it's the only place in New Zealand you can't have a boogie."

After going above and beyond to protect his staff and the community from Covid-19, he felt let down by the government.

"We spent money on getting ready for the traffic light system. So you're going ... 'government, we've done everything you said, we've spent money, we've reduced capacity, so why can't you have a smart traffic light system that lets the Bay at least be at orange'."

Anika Whapshott runs Blah Blah Marketing, which works with many of the region's tourism businesses.

They were tasked with conducting a survey of tourism operators and collating the results to present to Far North District mayor John Carter.

"The majority of people are reporting that their their current bookings that they had at time of response was around about 70 percent down, but it varied from 60 percent to 97 percent".

One business owner reported in the survey: "I have had 82 percent of future bookings cancelled in the last two weeks from now until Waitangi Day, all but one related to the road block issue of fear.

"Three families are affected by this. Hours will be cut from full time to part time with a minimum guarantee of six hours per week rather than laying anyone off.

"Predicting up to 80 percent in future losses up to and including Waitangi Day. I have no confidence whatsoever this will change in time to save some businesses over the summer. Nothing less than depressing and dangerous."

Whapshott has also had first hand experience.

"I answer the phone for a cycle trail company and we had to check that the phone worked because it wasn't ringing. It's it's that bad."

If Northland was to even have a tourism industry in the future, the government needed to step in to support businesses, and fast, she said.

"There won't be a tourism industry in the Bay of Islands or Far North like it was because they will have closed."

Paihia-based Salt Air offers scenic helicopter and aeroplane flights across the Bay of Islands and Northland.

Chief executive Grant Harnish said their earnings had plummeted between 91 and 94 percent.

"I'm probably at the end of my tether with hearing government officials telling me how good it is because everybody can operate now. Well, you can't.

"It's a two-speed economy at the moment. If you're in hospo and tourism you're doing nothing. If you're in everything else, you're flat out.

"And more power to those people that are flat out - good on them - but if you're in hospo and tourism and especially in the north, I really fear for what this district is going to look like."

The traffic light settings will be reviewed again on 17 January.