Aussie tourists a flight of fancy

On the face of it, an uphill battle looms.

Destination Manawatu and Palmerston North Airport hope more Australian tourists can be drawn to the lower North Island. They want tourism operators, district councils and the Palmerston North City Council to come up with money for a marketing push to get more Australian tourists coming to the lower North Island.

Given that a tourism website will be launched by the end of March and a marketing campaign is in the works, momentum for the programme must have been building behind the scenes for a little while and there is now sufficient progress to be confident of the scheme taking flight.

It is hoped that a boost in North Island tourism can then be used to show an airline that trans-Tasman flights involving Palmerston North are a business opportunitynot to be ignored.

It may be argued that a commercial case exists already, but it's one that airlines have not felt the need to make use of since 2008. Probably because the case is marginal and could do with helping along a bit.

Assuming the marketing push runs as planned, full steam ahead, only time will tell if it is successful. What Destination Manawatu will be hoping to avoid is a campaign with limited spirit because of disappointing levels of finance and limited buy-in.

As the Manawatu Standard reported last week, Australians are not queuing up to visit the lower North Island. Tourism New Zealand figures show 60.1 per cent of Australians entering New Zealand do so through Auckland. About 18 per cent come in through Christchurch, 11.6 per cent through Wellington and less than 1 per cent at both Hamilton and Rotorua.

Australian travel agents spoken to by the newspaper were less-than-inspired by Manawatu.

But that is the present and Destination Manawatu will say it is more interested in the future.

"Is there demand, yet? No, because it hasn't been created, yet," Destination Manawatu chief executive Lance Bickford said.

"We know we have a lot of work ahead to make it an attractive place to come to."

The main question potential funders such as councils ask themselves may well be this: Regardless of whether an airline can be persuaded to run trans-Tasman flights involving Palmerston North, is there merit in simply trying to bring more tourists to the lower North Island?

The case for funding will be based on potential. The case against will be based on doubt that tourists will find much in the lower North Island of appeal to them.

Either there isn't much here of genuine interest to visitors or the attractions here are not well-known and making them better known could achieve results.

A case in point is the Manawatu Gorge. That the Manawatu River flows between the Tararua and Ruahine ranges is scientifically interesting and unusual, and there is a nice walk there, but is it a compelling site for tourists to visit?

Destination Manawatu will no doubt argue we need to make the most of what we have.

Judgments about whether to commit money, and how much, will come down to expected return on investment - risk versus reward.

There is also the small matter of Palmerston North Airport's runway not really being long enough to accommodate international flights because of runway safety rules, though it's possible to get around this. Palmerston North Mayor Jono Naylor says this is indeed a small matter, and the airport and city council will certainly be able to remove obstacles to the viability of international flights if necessary.

What Destination Manawatu and the airport have done is identify a problem with the model used by Freedom Air before Air New Zealand wound up its low-cost subsidiary.

The problem is there was weakness in demand from Australia. There was some demand, yes - people returning home to Manawatu and business visitors, mainly. But tourists? Not really.

That's what Destination Manawatu and the airport plan to do something about.

But getting enough people and money on board to give the campaign clout and convincing an airline to run trans-Tasman flights here could still be a long haul.

- Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

Manawatu Standard