Rise of independent travellers buoys Whale Watch

A Whale Watch Kaikoura boat in action.

A Whale Watch Kaikoura boat in action.

Whale Watch is flying the flag for Kaikoura and despite five years ago going against the grain, calculated efforts to attract independent tourists are paying off, big time.

The award-winning whale watching operation banked on a large increase in independent travellers, who drive themselves rather than taking packaged tours to pre-assigned destinations, mainly by tour bus.

Whale Watch Kaikoura general manager Kauahi Ngapora said the industry was skeptical five years ago that the number of independent travellers from Asia would increase so quickly, but they've been proven right.

"We got a lot of pushback from the industry on that one.

"The first few years were very hard, but independent travellers are our fastest growing market now," he said, ahead of the New Zealand China Trade Association Awards last week.

The number of Chinese tourists visiting Whale Watch Kaikoura has soared by more than 200 per cent in four years, and the operation is forecasting numbers to double again within the next five years. 

Whale Watch Kaikoura was nominated for the Auckland International Airport Award for Excellence in Tourism, presented at a black-tie affair at Auckland's Viaduct Events Centre on Thursday's at the China Business Awards, up against Ngai Tahu Tourism and Youth Hostels Association of New Zealand.

While Ngai Tahu Tourism took the trophy, Whale Watch is quickly becoming as well-known as the renowned Shotover Jet run by its larger cousin, the South Island-iwi based tourism operator.

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He said a five-year strategy implemented at Whale Watch involved a range of bold moves, including increased marketing in China, and hiring Chinese-speaking marketing and communications specialist Wen Bin Ju, in 2010.

"He was the first big step into that market," said Ngapora.

"We weren't the first to go there by any means. It was all about timing. 

"We've made many trips to China, and we work with Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, Real Journeys and Ngai Tahu Tourism. It's a collective South Island pitch," he said.

"We are one of many big attractions. We're off the beaten track. We don't get any tour buses or shopping tours come through here, so we have to go out and get noticed," he said.

"But the semi-independent and fully-independent traveller has been the real development for us."

The plan has worked so well they exceeded their target and independent travellers are now the biggest drivers of growth.

Ngapora met Malcolm Johns on a trade mission to southern China in 2010. Johns was in the process of recruiting a Chinese language marketing executive and the Whale Watch manager thought "we should be doing that, too".

Johns is now chief executive of Christchurch Airport, and the airport has been leading the way for greater penetration into the Chinese market, including working with the recently re-established Chinese Consul-General's office and southern China travel agencies to bring direct flights to the South Island.

European and US visitor numbers have also increased, and Whale Watch customers don't just take home the message, they use social media and booking websites to make their feelings clear, and those responses have been overwhelmingly positive this summer.

Ngapora stresses that Kaikoura's iconic tour focuses on quality over quantity.

"Tour narration is a very important part of that package. Understanding is crucial to the experience. Wen Bin contributed to that (Chinese language commentary)," he said.

Chinese tourist arrivals into Christchurch Airport jumped 60 per cent in the four months to March with the huge Asian market remaining a target for further growth.

Malcolm Johns says part of the growth has been spurred by an ongoing relationship the airport has with one of China's largest travel agencies, GZL International Travel Service.

"They're the ones we've been undertaking the joint programme with, to lift the profile of the South Island in China," said Johns.

It is estimated that travellers flying into Christchurch spend 70-80 per cent of their budget in the South Island.

There were 12,804 Chinese arrivals into Christchurch Airport in the four months to March 31, up 59 per cent from 8064 in the four months to March 2014, according to Statistics NZ.

The supreme NZCTA award was won by Milk New Zealand Holding Ltd owned by Shanghai Pengxin, the investor responsible for turning around some of Crafar Farms less productive operations.

Kauahi Ngapora is proud of what the company and the town has achieved in tourism.

"We always fly the flag for Kaikoura whenever we have the opportunity."

 - Stuff


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