Push for magnificent Mainland

ALAN WOOD
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2012

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"South, the heart of New Zealand," is a new industry strategy being pushed into the hotter visitor markets of Asia to inject growth as memories of the persistent earthquakes recede.

Dave Hawkey, the former chief executive of big South Island tourism operator Real Journeys, has been in the role of manager for "South" since the initiative was launched with Christchurch International Airport funding in February.

There is commitment.

CIAL chief executive Jim Boult has taken about $500,000 out of the airport's "aeronautical marketing budget" towards the tourist stimulation project.

But the idea is that 12 regional tourism organisations (RTOs) put more money towards South in the 2013-14 year.

In his more than three decades in the tourism industry Boult sees the recent period following the earthquakes and the global financial crisis as one of the worst for some operators.

"This would be one of the hardest times we've seen in the tourism industry . . . go and talk to tourism retailers down the West Coast or down south, right up through the country. They are finding it really, really tough."

Soon after the quakes, CIAL recognised it would have to do something radical to retain aeronautical volumes given that a big chunk of Christchurch's tourism infrastructure, mainly the big hotels, was destroyed .

Boult says the recovery of the tourism sector can be speeded up by bringing the influential RTOs into an overarching group.

The RTOs in the South Island have a combined annual budget of about $14 million.

Tourism Dunedin chief executive Hamish Saxton says his RTO, which has a council-budget of $1.2m, is committed to the idea of South and recognises that Christchurch Airport is of enormous importance to the South Island.

International visitors to Dunedin have fallen as a result of the quakes, but on the other hand Christchurch residents are enjoying visits to the city and its intact heritage. "Dunedin is being seen through different eyes now with its urban infrastructure."

Funding of South and its endeavours to attract visitors from Asia is a distinct possibility.

"We have indicated that we will be putting some funding towards the model, though that has yet to be confirmed," Saxton says.

Rodney Bennett, owner of High Country Explorer Tours, says times remain tough for operators, given the number of quake-destroyed hotels.

"We do operate a product out of Christchurch, but we're not promoting at the moment heavily . . . because of the situation since the earthquake in Christchurch with the lack of accommodation, we just can't get volume and nobody can."

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Hawkey says despite the quake damage, the city on the positive side has a hire and drive base rather than being a "fly and drop" destination like Bali or Fiji.

"Some recent research that's just come out . . . demonstrated that Christchurch and Canterbury is the No 1 spot in the country for campervans in terms of people staying. No 2 is Queenstown and No 3 is the West Coast."

Boult says South will not need the big dollars to market at a retail level. Rather it will be specific, talking to tourism wholesalers in China, for example, about the merits of the South Island as a whole as a destination.

"It's about growing the pie rather than fighting over a share of the pie," Hawkey adds.

Boult wants the period of recovery to be marked by new medium to long-haul flights into the Garden City. The airport is targeting a Los Angeles to Christchurch route, possibly provided by Air New Zealand or another airline.

It also wants direct routes from Australian cities such as Perth and Adelaide, and importantly a new route from southern China. The earthquakes and other impacts such as the downturn and a delay by Boeing in the delivery of 787s to airlines have not helped.

The airport saw 5,592,529 passengers in calendar 2011. Those movements were down 405,000 or 6.7 per cent over calendar 2010. The figure dropped again to 5,551,600 in the 12 months to June 30, 2012.

But the airport anticipates growth in volumes in the next two years partly stimulated by rebuild workers, Boult says.

"Look we will get an LA service, sometime in the next two years . . . We will get a China service and that will be sometime in the next couple of years as well. We will get services from other parts of Australia, that we currently aren't getting . . . for example Adelaide and Perth. Particularly when the rebuild gets [fully] under way."

Getting airlines to commit to new unproven routes was a long arduous process. Airports such as Christchurch typically spend years wooing the aviation decision-makers and sometimes with limited success.

CIAL announced with much fanfare the arrival of Air AsiaX, a service that started in April 2011 only to slam the door shut on the last passenger trip a bit more than a year later.

CIAL chief operating officer Andy Lester says there are still benefits from the Air AsiaX service with increased Malaysian visitors still coming to New Zealand. There were 30,720 visitors from that country to New Zealand in the year to November 30, 2012.

Boult says the airport still hopes to win back Air AsiaX. It is also in talks with Air Garuda, China Southern, Cathay Pacific and Indian airlines.

"We don't think we'll get an Indian service for maybe five years but we've started the ball rolling."

China is the welcome air service for a decline in international tourists from the "Western" countries which include Europe, Britain and the United States, and who have stopped travelling in the harsh economic climate.

"China and to some degree Australia are the only markets that have been showing some significant growth, China in particular," Hawkey says.

"The challenge with Australia is that you are very much into the repeat visitor market, so a lot of Australians have been here . . . over half now are repeat visitors."

Hawkey says it has been a tough year with the number of international visitors to New Zealand down in the year until October.

In the South Island international bed night numbers were down by 8.5 per cent in the 12 months to October 2012 compared with the same period to October 2011. In the North Island the decline was less severe at 4.7 per cent in the same comparative period, though there was probably a Rugby World Cup impact.

However, some international tourists who did choose the Mainland stayed longer. For example, Chinese arrivals into Christchurch notched up 9.8 days for an average length of stay in the south, much more than the six-day average stay for visitors to the North Island.

However, the Chinese still favour the North Island cities of Auckland and Rotorua by number, Boult says. "[But] many of the Chinese visitors coming to Auckland, for example, get off the plane and kind of, ‘where's the mountains and lakes?'."

South is in the process of appointing a China-based "dedicated trade manager" who will be able to talk to and work with travel wholesalers in that country on behalf of RTOs, Boult adds.

Hawkey a month and a half ago visited the cities of Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai to talk to 360 travel agents and wholesalers, to help kick-start South.

"We don't have the budget, nor should we get involved in large consumer campaigns. That's Tourism New Zealand's role but our role is pretty much focused on the trade outside Australia. . . . the RTOs sent us a pretty clear message: ‘We need your help in the longer-haul market and the ones where language is a barrier'."

Some of the South Island's bigger tourism operators/owners including Ngai Tahu Tourism, Real Journeys, Skyline Enterprises, and John Davies who has a stake in the Hermitage at Mt Cook have indicated their support for the idea.

Hawkey is urging the RTOs and operators to offer a Chinese-language option on their websites. South marketing booklets for wholesalers highlighting the Mainland's tourism options had been produced in Chinese with Korean and Japanese language versions at "the printers".

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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