Bringing business to mountain no walk in the park

The Aoraki/Mt Cook region stuns visitors with its natural beauty, a reminder of how important New Zealand's conservation values are.

But there is also money to be made in the confluence between the mountains and the glacial valley bottom that is Aoraki/Mt Cook village.

Air New Zealand has tested the waters, putting on flights three days a week, from December 26 through to tomorrow, to an airstrip near the village.

Tourism operators have welcomed the move and look forward to any extension in 2013/14, although the airline says it is unlikely to repeat the flights next summer.

So business owners will continue to work very hard to make the most of the important peak tourism season during the summer.

Since January 7, 2003, Mary and Charlie Hobbs, with grown-up children, have run The Old Mountaineers' Cafe and Bar in the village area, with Charlie also running glacier kayaking trips up the growing lake at the foot of the Tasman Glacier.

They are now pushing towards an agreement with the Department of Conservation on an extension to their business: a new inn and spa.

Also they have recently sold their Sumner home in Christchurch, and invested in a farm near the intersection of the State Highway 8 and the road alongside Lake Pukaki, up to the visitor drawcard of The Hermitage.

Their plan is inspired by the dramatic mountain and glacier backdrop.

Mary Hobbs espouses environmentally friendly values, uses organic food at the cafe, and talks about the advantages of owning a nearby farm. She also thinks overseas visitors should be charged entry to the park.

She has other business ideas. The couple have suggested to DOC that business owners should be allowed to take a freehold land title in the park area. Currently, they run on a 30-year lease, with the right of renewal for another 30 years, although they own the cafe building on the land and run their own accommodation for their cafe workers.

Mary's frustrations with both DOC and The Hermitage hotel, owned by John Davies (who is reportedly worth $90 million), have been outlined in a book, Matagouri And Other Pricks.

She tells the story of DOC's alleged bureaucratic tricks surrounding the couple's business plans in the village area, which is part of the national park. The pair had been at loggerheads with The Hermitage hotel about building their cafe.

She describes the whole process as "war".

"We were the first to break the monopoly here in the village . . . a business that has been here for over 100 years and a national park that has been here since 1953," Mary says.

"When our backs were to the wall back in 2004, and we were getting a particularly hard time, instead of retreating we decided to expand, so we put in plans for a health spa right at the front of the village, and also The Old Mountaineers' Inn to go with the restaurant."

The Hobbs' frustration with the processes may have eased a bit. Mary is now confident they and DOC should be able to resolve issues around the planned inn and spa facility, the concession for which was approved in 2010.

"Here we are in 2013 quibbling over the conditions with DOC . . . one example that springs to mind is that DOC wanted us, as one of the clauses, to agree that we would agree to any policy that they brought into the park in the future . . . They could bring in a policy that you have to pack up and go," she adds.

DOC spokeswoman Fiona Oliphant says a concession application by the couple was approved in 2010.

"The department is in the process of working through draft terms and conditions of the concession with the applicant. The applicant has provided a number of suggested amendments to the terms and conditions, which are currently being worked through," Oliphant says

Mary Hobbs notes that the earthquakes did eat into road traffic from Christchurch, which impacted the business, but visitor numbers are "coming back".

She won't detail how much the couple have invested in their project so far. "Let's just say we've invested a substantial part of our life and I think that comes at a certain cost. For instance, just to get the permission for this place [cafe] took 10 years [from 1993]."

The Hermitage is more of an institution in the village, and has expanded its operations to 216 available rooms of different grades, as well as tourism operations including the Tasman Valley 4WD & Argo Tours, which has been running for 18 years and was bought by the Davies' group about four years ago.

The Hermitage general manager Nigel Harper is understated in his response to plans by Mary and Charlie Hobbs and others to expand business in the park.

He says it is a DOC decision for such approvals, and that The Hermitage is open to more business enterprise in the area.

"If [DOC] want to get more people in there with more business, they can. [It would worry me] not the slightest."

But tourism is dependent on visitor numbers.

Harper says he has already spoken to Air New Zealand about the potential for an expanded 2013/14 season from October to the end of March. He was asking for "more flights for a longer period of time". "They have it over six weeks, which is not a great sample period."

An Air New Zealand spokesperson responded that it was unlikely the Mt Cook service would resume next season, because of low demand. Air New Zealand did operate services between Christchurch and Mt Cook a decade ago, with the final flights in February 2002.

Harper says it is a different area to operate in, given that flying and driving in supplies to the remote location comes at a cost. "Everything we need here is freighted in. All the rubbish, whether it is combustible or not, is freighted out. It's a pain . . . the operating costs of the hotel parts are very, very high."

In terms of further potential expansion, there was "nothing on the drawing boards" at the moment, Harper says.

However, there is constant fine-tuning; The Hermitage rooms were upgraded in the past year or so and the group is improving the motel and chalet rooms this winter.

The accommodation-based group had noticed a bounce-back from the impact of the Canterbury earthquakes, with the flights leading to a good high summer season. "There's no effect on us at the moment. Obviously it did last year compared to the year before . . .," Harper says.

"We're back now up to 2010 levels, and probably a bit more as well. We're up nicely on accommodation from overseas especially, Japanese, Korean, Chinese - all good groups."

Graeme Slatter, who runs the Argo tours on behalf of The Hermitage group up the Old Ball Hut Rd near the bottom of the Tasman glacier, says it is a compact working environment. "About 200 people live and work here in the village. You have to live here to work here. There's about 100 of us here in the winter time."

Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter says it has been lobbying Air New Zealand to retain the air link with Mt Cook. The service was launched with the prompting of The Hermitage and others.

There was potential for increased usage of the flights by Christchurch residents. "It's a difficult place to do a day trip from by car or bus . . . because of the distance . . . [also] it makes it hard for travel agents around the world to sell if it's not offered on a daily basis."

Alan Wood flew to Mt Cook, courtesy of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism