20 May 2023

Hit hard by Covid-19, tourism brick-and-mortar icon i-SITEs still have a place, industry says

7:58 pm on 20 May 2023

Hawke's Bay Tourism chief executive Hamish Saxton says i-SITES are still important for visitors. Photo:

The tourism industry says i-SITE visitor centres still have an important role to play despite the ease of accessing information online.

Pre-Covid-19, there were more than 80 i-SITEs dotted around the country, but the pandemic hit them hard, and not all survived.

Invercargill was on the chopping block before Christmas in 2020 - while others were put into hibernation.

The losses started before the pandemic, with Kapiti and Ashburton among those that closed a few years earlier.

But Hawke's Bay Tourism chief executive Hamish Saxton said they were still important for visitors.

"Perhaps I'm a little bit old-school, but I still believe there's real, great power in meeting with somebody face-to-face, and having a bit of an understanding about the needs that I would have, particularly as a visitor," Saxton said.

"I think that you're able to get a really bespoke advice experience through an information centre."

Hamish Saxton said the need for quality visitor centres and information became even more apparent when Cyclone Gabrielle hit and in the aftermath.

Visitors - who could be forgotten in an emergency - needed a obvious place they could get clear, bespoke information from knowledgeable locals, he said.

"There may be a time when our visitors to New Zealand are feeling vulnerable, and I think that that's exactly where an i-SITE, an information centre can provide support to our manuhiri while they're staying in New Zealand, and I think that that's why they still have a place and why we have a real need for them."

Last May, the government earmarked close to $3 million to go towards upgrading some i-SITEs, enhancing online services, and improving engagement with local history, culture and heritage attractions.

I-SITEs are a subsidiary of Tourism New Zealand, with its pre-pandemic figures suggesting around 40 percent of all overseas tourists to Aotearoa used an i-SITE.

Chief executive René de Monchy said they still had a role to play despite a rocky few years.

"People might search online, but having a place where you can talk to a local expert, I think is always still going to play an important role, and I would expect that certainly as people reconnect, come back to New Zealand.

"New Zealand's quite often the trip of a lifetime so you may only visit once in your lifetime, getting good, accurate local information, I think is always going to be an important part."

In 2020, the central Christchurch i-SITE closed its doors, with plans to reopen when the demand returns.

But the absence of a central visitor centre had prompted Richard Benton - a director of the West Coast Wildlife Centre - to work on setting up his own.

"Christchurch since September last year has become busier and busier. There's a lot more visitors coming into the region and I think people are hungry for information, and people do like to talk to people.

"I think that model actually does work but also looking at combining tourism with economic development rather than just being tourism on its own."

That means particular regions can promote ways to work, live and play in their areas.

He was pleased with the buy in so far.

It will involve a team of volunteers - ambassadors - who can share experiences and tips, and blue footprints to help guide people to the door.

"There will be regional panels on the walls which are LED lit, and they'll be supported by QR key code scans and brochures and maps and videos for people, because everyone buys in different ways."

His new visitor information centre was expected to open in the Guthrey Centre off Cashel Street Mall later this year.

ChristchurchNZ destination and attraction general manager Loren Heaphy confirmed it was reviewing the role of visitor information in the city and expected this would be dealt with in the regional Destination Management Plan.

"Simultaneously Visitor Information Network (Inc) and Tourism New Zealand, who oversee the i-SITE network, have been reviewing the national i-SITE model and will make a recommendation in the near future on the role of isites within Aotearoa," Heaphy said.

"ChristchurchNZ currently holds the i-SITE license for the city, however, with current private sector interest in operating a central city isite, CNZ will look to do an independent tender process to allocate the license to a business who can manage visitor information as part of a commercial model."

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