7 Dec 2021

Franz Josef, Fox Glacier tourist spots prepare for summer with staffing shortfalls

7:58 pm on 7 December 2021

Businesses in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are hundreds of staff short for the summer season with many struggling to find and afford workers.

Franz Josef

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

A recent survey painted a grim picture of South Westland with more business closures, job losses, poorer mental health, and community members leaving.

For those hanging on, there was hope summer would bring much needed visitors to glacier country, but would they have enough staff to cater for them?

Franz Josef accommodation owner Logan Skinner said they would usually be busy with tourists by this time of the year.

Logan Skinner.

Logan Skinner. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"The town is normally humming. The streets are packed, it's hard to get a carpark. Everybody's having a great time, helicopters are flying, so normally you'd be running around trying to look after tourists," Skinner said.

"You'd be having your summer season staff here, trying to get to grips with the town and get to grips with the job."

Pre-pandemic, his Orange Sheep Campervan Park would have up to 150 people staying overnight - instead there was four to mark the start of summer.

Usually he would have up to 16 staff working across his accommodation businesses.

Now it was just him with Christmas rapidly approaching.

"It's going to be a really busy two weeks and I'll try to get some help from some locals. But how do you hire people for a two-week, three-week job?

"Especially when everyone in the town and area will be flat out for those two to three weeks.

"People aren't going to pack up and relocate to a beautiful, but remote place for two or three weeks' work. They're going to want more security of work, especially at that Christmas rush when people are wanting to spend it with their friends and family."

As a summer season tourist town, Skinner said the international borders would open far too late with unpalatable self-isolation rules, so they were unlikely to see many overseas travellers before next November.

"I do worry what the town will be like, really do worry. We need a critical mass here in the town.

"It's a beautiful spot to visit but people want a choice of accommodation, they want a choice of restaurant, they want a choice of activity, and if you can't provide that choice, then we become just a cup of tea stop then you carry on and stay somewhere else."

Skydiver prepares the plane at the skydive centre at Franz Josef Glacier in 2018.

Skydive Franz Josef and Fox Glacier is not expecting many visitors this holiday season. Photo: ruslankphoto / 123RF

Lisa Chambers, from Skydive Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, said the Department of Conservation's Jobs for Nature programme was helping to keep her 13 staff on the books and in the community.

"We're very fortunate that we've held on with the minimal amount of crew that we need to operate and then are still able to keep them busy in work if they don't have enough skydives to complete that week."

Chambers was not predicting huge numbers these holidays and was not planning on adding any more staff.

"Every single jump we get the opportunity to do should go to the crew who've stuck it out through the hardest times.

"Normally it would be at least double what we've got, if not triple what we've got depending on how the bookings were looking and the amount of visitors that were predicted to be coming through."

A few minutes' drive from Fox Glacier is Lake Matheson Cafe that sits near the mirror lake it is named after.

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Lake Matheson. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Owner Chris Alexander said they would usually have about 30 staff now, with up to 45 at its peak.

"For this upcoming season, we've got five currently and we'll just be sticking with that five for two reasons. One - it's just about impossible to get any staff and two - just the uncertainty of what our volumes are going to be."

He would not rule out other changes if the summer got out of hand and he could not find more workers.

"We'd reduce our menus, reduce our delicatessen items a wee bit, and worse comes to worst, we could possibly look at closing for a day a week to give staff a day off.

"That's kind of the last thing we want to do because if people have come to the area and they're enjoying the area, we want to cater for them as best as we can. But also we've got to look after the wellbeing of the staff and we can't work forever without time off."

A recent business survey found at least 16 businesses were no longer operating, with 15 percent of respondents indicating they would not survive the next six months without support.

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

(File image). Photo: ruslankphoto.com / 123RF

Development West Coast chief executive Heath Milne estimated they were at least a couple of hundred workers short for the summer.

But he would not rule out that figure being higher, especially if more visitors arrived.

A job expo was held in Franz Josef last week in a bid to ease the pressure, but businesses far outnumbered workers.

"It's certainly a big issue going forward - how those businesses are going to actually serve their customers over the summer period," Milne said.

He was expecting summer bookings to increase after a slow start, but said they could get quite a few last minute arrivals too.

Traditionally people on working holiday visas would fill many of the job vacancies, but that was not possible this year.

He urged anyone who wanted a working summer holiday to check out the different jobs available on the West Coast.

If businesses could not afford or find enough staff, he was predicting owners would face weeks of covering all of the jobs they could not fill.

"While the opportunity's there to get some revenue and cater to the visitors that will come over the summer, it's going to be a tough slog for them," Milne said. "There will certainly be some issues of overwork and stress-related problems as a result of that."

While staffing was creating a lot of stress in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef, businesses said they were eager to welcome visitors over summer.

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