Kick-starting tourism's limbo land

Tourism operators want to see Christchurch rehabilitated as a destination rather than pitied for being a demolition site tangled up in seismic wreckage.

Can disaster tourism work for the city? is it worth spending money to promote the remains?

Unfortunately, the national organisation with the biggest tourism promotion budget seems to view that as a waste of taxpayer funds.

Tourism New Zealand chief executive Kevin Bowler says it is still too early to market Christchurch as a destination during the earthquake demolition phase.

He is urging the community, business and local government to get the city back to a viable position and marketing will follow.

"I think it's dangerous to lead with the marketing and not have the product available," Bowler says.

That's a strong view given that Tourism NZ is the national marketing body for New Zealand as a travel destination to overseas markets.

But it's an influential one from a body holding multimillion-dollar purse strings - its budget is around $84 million each year.

It is a question of whether good promotional money will be wasted on a torn city that's epitomised by a cathedral still standing and attracting sightseers, but on the way out as a visitor attraction because of planned demolition.

On the other side is Tim Hunter, the chief executive of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism (CCT), who refuses to throw in the towel.

He says there are still significant tourism numbers and more should be encouraged into the heart of the city.

So has the Garden City been cast adrift by the national tourism marketing body?

Bowler says selling Christchurch as an entry and exit point for tourists is not an issue, but the city, with reduced accommodation because of the quakes, is.

"In terms of going out and marketing Christchurch as a destination, we're probably getting a little ahead of ourselves.

"My view is the energy should go into the redevelopment and building (of the city) not on promotion," he adds.

Meanwhile, some local operators feel they are being let down, with the city in its present state impossible to market.

The fact that the city has significant attractions still operating is not known by tourism operators overseas.

At one stage international guest nights in Canterbury were about 1 million nights lower than the year before.

That's a huge amount of business not coming through the city. CCT estimates the city lost about $230m of business after February 22, 2011.

Among the Canterbury businesses hurt by the quakes is Hassle-free Tours, owned by Mark Gilbert, who says more marketing is needed for the city.

Hassle-free operates London double-decker bus tours, along with other transport tours.

"I think that Christchurch has never stopped being a great destination for people to come and see. There's still plenty of stuff to do," Gilbert says.

"There's a few restraints around accommodation but there still is plenty of accommodation.

"You might have to stay in a slightly different option from what you would have planned to stay in."

Hunter already has a plan to drive a recovery, mainly by changing the perception of Christchurch in the key visitor market of Australia.

The number of tourists arriving has fallen, but the figures still back a viable industry. There were 707,000 international passenger arrivals into Christchurch airport in the year to June, and a further 712,000 international departures in the same period.

But Australian passenger figures of 310,248 were down 22.9 per cent from the year before, when there were more than 402,000 Aussie visitors.

Australians think of Christchurch as a depressing place with nothing to do, one of Hunter's Australian campaign plans says.

This means a new narrative needs to be woven around the city that includes the earthquake.

"I don't agree with that view that it's too early to promote Christchurch. My point is this there is a lot of product [for tourism experiences] available."

While people in Christchurch see the demolition of the central city as a loss, visitors unfamiliar with city come to it with a fresh perspective, he says.

Research in February-March showed that 90 per cent of international visitors surveyed were very interested in the earthquakes and wanted to learn more about them, Hunter says.

At one point, visitor nights were down by a million but in the year to June guest nights fell 27 per cent, or 438,000 to 1.132 million, compared with the year before.

"The rate of loss has stopped. In fact, in international arrivals, compared with last year we've had growth months in March and June.

"It appears we will have another growth month in July because we've had some good ski traffic."

To help rebuild Christchurch's profile with the Aussies, Hunter crossed the Tasman this week with Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker and Tim Dearsley, the hotel manager of the Ibis Christchurch.

The Ibis is set to be the first hotel to reopen in the central business district, with opening scheduled for September 4.

They were in Sydney to talk to media and the travel industry about the central city blueprint for revitalisation, as well as promoting what was still on offer in the way of tourism activities.

"Although we don't have access to the Arts Centre, the art gallery, the cathedral, and we've had no tram in the city, all the other commercial stuff beyond that is working quite well," Hunter says.

"[Also] there's a resurgence of new pop-up bars and restaurants around the centre of the city. There's a lot going on in the Victoria St area [and] Addington."

Tourism NZ has taken on two new Christchurch-based board members - seen as helpful advisers on the survival of tourism in the Garden City and the wider South Island.

Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key this month announced the appointment of Jenn Bestwick and John Thorburn as new board members of Tourism NZ.

Bowler says it will be an advantage to have the Christchurch board members given the longer-term focus on quake recovery for the city over five to 10 years.

Thorburn is chief executive of Ngai Tahu Tourism ,which holds significant assets in the South Island, including Shotover Jet.

He says the iwi will be able to build the rich Maori story and culture into tourism experiences to help build the sector.

The recovery will be a series of small steps, one of the next ones being the re-opening of the Ibis hotel.

Bestwick, who has several board roles, including chairwoman of the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology council, says overseas tourism wholesalers want to know more about the replacement of assets in

accommodation and entertainment sectors.

"It does come down to hospitality; it does come down to tourism activities."

In the board role, Bestwick will look to bring her knowledge of South Island Maori interests and education into play.

CPIT provides training for people that go on to work in the tourism and hospitality sectors. She had also previously worked with iwi Ngai Tahu.

"Canterbury's tourism offering is going to change, obviously.

"A lot of our English heritage and what we used to market ourselves on is gone so . . . it's a real opportunity to look at all of our heritage and think about our heritage in a different way," Bestwick says.

Bowler says he does not believe there is still a concern about quakes in Christchurch.

He thinks that probably the best approach is not to remind potential visitors about what the city has been through with the quakes.

The national tourism body's strategy to support tourism in the South Island includes an ongoing promotion of the ski industry into the Australian market.

Tourism NZ also intends to financially support a CCT marketing promotional programme in Australia that would follow on from wider ski promotion.

There would also be a repeat of a South Island drive programme that had run last summer.

When asked when might be a good time for a sizeable marketing campaign based around Christchurch as a destination, Bowler says that was a hard question to answer.

"I think it's about gradually increasing the promotion of the city [as] accommodation becomes available," he says.

"I suspect we will be talking about this in five years' time still."