Time to attract airlines
Two of the main organisations capable of bringing international flights back to Palmerston North are at loggerheads of how to make it happen.
Destination Manawatu says the region needs to actively pursue the return of international flights to Palmerston North, but the airport says it can't bargain with international airlines effectively unless there are more incentives for international tourists to visit.
Freedom Air ceased its flights to Australia from Palmerston North in 2008 and the airport company told its owner, Palmerston North City Council, last year that it had put the idea of a return on the backburner until at least 2016.
Destination Manawatu chief executive Lance Bickford told the Manawatu Standard the airport needed to be focusing on it now.
"At this rate it could be five years - it could be 10 years. For us, I think if we haven't brought back international flights in three years' time we should look at it and say we have failed."
The lower North Island's memory of Palmerston North as an international destination was fading, and airlines that did come would not want to have to market to remind people, Mr Bickford said.
Airport company chief executive Darin Cusack said it wanted to see more promotion of existing and new attractions in the region before it was prepared to focus on international flights.
"We always have international airlines on our radar and we're always about bringing more flights to the airport in whatever shape.
"It's about striking at the right time. We need the tourism industry in the region to develop the links and develop the product it has.
"The problem is that we are at the whim of growth in demand and even things as simple as companies having aircraft available."
Mr Bickford said the city's economy was now in the right place, tourism spending statistics were trending up and campaigns had just been launched to promote the Manawatu Gorge "in the same breath as the Routeburn and Tongariro Crossing".
"The airport company has done a lot of work around the ability to extend the runway and everything sits in place for it to happen but we are really needing them to play a lead role in this. To wait until we have something else to attract tourists is to wait too long."
Freedom had run an effective business through Palmerston North "from an outbound point of view at least", which should make it easier to sell to companies such as Air New Zealand, Jetstar, or Virgin, Mr Bickford said. "This is an important issue for the whole region. We saw the drop [in tourism spending] when they left, and we would recover that and probably more overnight if they were available."
Palmerston North City Council economic policy adviser Peter Crawford said tourism spending was trending up and was now back to 2008 levels. It had dropped significantly when flights left but had been steadily declining before then as services were gradually reduced.
Domestic tourism was now the driving force behind the recovery and the most recent domestic spending statistics available - October and November 2013 - were both up 11 per cent on the same time in 2012.