Sink or swim?

Picton on the brink of something big

CATHIE BELL
Last updated 13:03 02/07/2014
Picton’s foreshore
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ
BUSY SEASON AHEAD: Picton’s foreshore is popular with visitors. This summer looks like it could be a bumper one.

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The Government has given up on moving the inter-island ferries away from Picton. Cathie Bell looks at what the future holds for the town.

Even in the depths of winter, the Marlborough Sounds are beautiful.

The sun peeks over the hills, filtering down into crystal-clear bays. The Cook Strait ferries cut their way through Tory Channel, heading for Picton.

Those ferries carry more than a million people each year through the Sounds, and the Government's decision to keep the inter-island ferry terminal at Picton, rather than move it to Clifford Bay in southern Marlborough, was a huge relief to the Sounds community that had been living with enormous uncertainty for three years.

While the Government said the decision would not be revisited for at least 30 years, KiwiRail has put its land at Clifford Bay up for sale, marking what appears to be the end of any thoughts of moving the terminal.

The finality of that decision has put Picton in a really good position.

The question now is: will Picton stay as it is, or will it make the most of its opportunities?

Government ministers described Picton as having the potential to be "the Queenstown of the top of the South Island" or "the saltwater Queenstown" during the deliberations over whether to move the ferry terminal.

It wasn't a comparison that many in the town welcomed, but there is a determination that Picton is going to grab the opportunities it has been given with the retention of the ferries, the doubling of cruise ship numbers during the 2014-15 summer season, and the growth in tourism generally that should see visitors return in higher numbers to the region.

Picton Business Group chairman Graham Gosling is confident the town can do it.

It has Clifford Bay off its back, which caused so much uncertainty, he said. Now, they could invest in their businesses and community, which made a "heck of a difference" in the town's mood.

"Picton embraces the ferries, as it does cruise ships."

Marlborough and Picton had to move together, Gosling says.

"I think you'll see some movement in the next few years, sooner rather than later. You'll find there will be a bit of capital spent."

He highlights projects such as the Link Pathway, a cycle and walking track between Picton and Havelock which has the potential to be a huge visitor drawcard, as well as port company developments that could see $100 million invested over the next decade.

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The beautification of London Quay, planned work on High St and the completion of the Endeavour Park Pavilion all offered opportunities.

Everyone needed to work together to get the best of the opportunities, Gosling said.

"There's no point in having negative viewpoints.

"We can make the town quite wonderful. We don't want to be Queenstown, but we don't mind sharing. We'd like to see our visitors stay another night or two."

Port Marlborough chief executive Ian McNabb is not keen to talk about port company developments before contracts are signed. But he says the ferry terminals are likely to see the first improvements, and that will happen as the two ferry operators renegotiate their contracts with Port Marlborough - Strait Shipping next year and Interislander in 2017.

"That's just a start. Now there's confidence back and things are actually going to stay here, we can move forward with stuff. We had stuff put on hold with Clifford Bay . . . Picton has good stuff ahead of it."

Picton resident Margaret McHugh, who runs a B&B in the town, lived in Queenstown before moving to Marlborough. In her submission to the council's draft annual plan, she preferred to liken Picton to Wanaka.

She talked about the need for people to work together to promote Picton, pointing out Wanaka's successes in drawing people to the small lakeside holiday town "over the hill" from the world famous adventure resort.

But that does lead to another discussion about the resources Marlborough dedicates to tourism promotion. Lake Wanaka Tourism got more than $600,000 from the Queenstown Lakes District Council during 2012-13 for promotions work, according to its online accounts.

That's the same amount Destination Marlborough gets from the Marlborough District Council to promote the entire region.

Nigel Gould has been chairman of Destination Marlborough for just over a year and says there is already a greater amount of working together between the different organisations and sectors.

He still feels frustrated that the tourism sector in Marlborough is fractured.

"We can't get unity with the convention bureau. The theatre is more autonomous than we think it should be. More pieces are being put on the table but no-one is working together to put the pieces together in the jigsaw."

The sector had been hit hard during the past five years, both by the huge impact of the Christchurch earthquake, which dried up visitor numbers, and the global financial crisis that caused another drop in international visitors and coincided with a slip in the wine sector and a lack of economic activity in Marlborough.

The Clifford Bay issue had an impact, too, and risked isolating Picton and Marlborough from the national transport network.

But things are looking up, Gould says.

Visitor numbers to New Zealand and domestic travel are both up, and if Marlborough secured even just the share it has had before, that would be a big increase.

However, he wants more, with the extra funding Destination Marlborough had been promised being put towards boosting the visitor spend in Marlborough from $253m last year to $366m by 2018.

Tourism NZ chief executive Kevin Bowler and New Zealand Tourism Industry Association chairman Grant Lilly, both in Blenheim last week to speak at the Holiday Parks Association conference, were optimistic about Marlborough's chances of attracting good tourism numbers.

Gould said all the frustrations holding Marlborough back for the past five years were off the table.

"We're a small community, 40,000-odd people. We've invested in the hard stuff - the airport, theatre, convention centre, port facilities. We've done all the hard stuff, we also have to invest in the soft stuff - getting the message through."

Part of that would be to create a vibrancy and cohesiveness among the Picton business community.

The Marlborough District Council has a key role in helping Picton - and the rest of Marlborough - to grow. It owns the airport and the port company, and has forestry assets providing good dividends into council reserve funds, which means the council can pay for projects without having to hit up ratepayers.

As well as a review of Destination Marlborough and the district's tourism, marketing and economic development activities, other work is under way.

Marlborough Mayor Alistair Sowman said the council was "very positive about Picton".

Work has started within the business community and at the port company that could help the town make the most of its opportunities.

"The whole Clifford Bay debate highlighted that we're not capturing that passing trade. We have to do something about it."

But what will be done?

There is a lot of positive talk, but there is no concrete plan in place yet. There are several groups in Picton that could have a role, ranging from the Picton Business Group, the Picton forum, tourism operators' group Explore Picton, just to name a few.

Historically, those groups haven't got on well, and there have been personality conflicts that caused fractures within Picton's business community.

Someone needs to step up into a leadership role, bring all the groups and personalities together, and build support for a direction to ensure that the town and its people can make the most of the anticipated tourism boom.

So, Picton is poised on the brink.

If it all comes together, with someone or some organisation pulling together a strategy that is supported and implemented by everyone, Picton could do a beautiful swandive.

But if it's left to just drift, that could turn into an ugly bellyflop. And that would leave all of us in Marlborough worse off.

- Marlborough

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