25 Jul 2021

Heritage train operator pivots to domestic tourists

11:20 am on 25 July 2021

A cruise ship-focused tourist operator is transforming his business by targeting domestic tourists.

The Marlborough Flyer heading through the Taylor Pass.

The Marlborough Flyer steam train. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Pounamu Tourism Group owner Paul Jackson said they were preparing for about 60 cruise ship to arrive in Picton in 2020.

His company would take 300 passengers on the Marlborough Flyer steam train, delivering them to Blenhiem.

But when Covid-19 struck and he, like many others, was left with the vast majority of his usual market cut off by border closures.

"We were scratching our heads over lockdown and, obviously, the business was looking at 11,000 cruise passengers on the train and then back to zero, it was quite a jolt for us."

Five percent of their business was previously domestic.

But they decided to create a heritage train tour from Picton to Invercargill with luxury coach trips along the way that was designed for domestic visitors.

"I think it just dispelled some of the myth that the domestic tourists isn't necessarily a high value tourist because we found quite the opposite."

The challenge was finding a product that resonated and catered for their needs, he said.

He's since launched a 13-day tour of the South Island heritage train and luxury coach tour, that will start in March next year.

The tour is designed with the assumption that the border will be closed and no international visitors will be coming through.

"As we've seen, the borders are opening and closing, and there's just too much risk marketing it to potential international tourists who may or may not be able to get through the border."

That means they would have a guaranteed departure and wouldn't leave any hospitality, suppliers or other operators involved in the lurch if the borders closed, Jackson said.

It also visits the hardest hit tourist-focused communities in the South Island.

It's inspired by Sir Edmund Hillary, covering the Southern Alps where he travelled for adventure, Marlborough where he trained for the air force during the Second World War and to Aoraki Mt Cook where his son Peter Hillary will join to speak about his father's many climbs.

"The truth is we probably wouldn't be doing the tour had it not been for the demise of the cruise ship activity because it forced us to look elsewhere. That's what gave us the push to actually develop a tour.

"So, in some ways, and I say this with reservations, but in some ways, it was a blessing in disguise because the tours have opened our eyes to touring."

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