Tourists land to rude Kiwi awakening

ANNA TURNER AND JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 18/05/2013

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Tourists are being kicked out of Christchurch airport and are being forced to sleep rough in bus shelters and stairwells as they wait for their morning connections.

The airport has adopted a tough new policy of closing and "clearing" its international terminal between midnight and 5am after discovering as many as 200 commuters were choosing to sleep there instead of booking accommodation.

The airport said the closure, which came into force on May 6, was due to refurbishment, fire alarm maintenance and testing.

But the rule has ruffled feathers and means travellers arriving late at night have to leave the airport, with some resorting to sleeping outside in freezing temperatures or huddling in bus shelters to pass the night.

An airport employee, who did not wish to be named, said since the new rule came in people had been spilling out of the airport every night.

"People sleep in stairwells, smoking areas and all the bus stops all the way down to the Copthorne Hotel."

They were kicked out in "all weather conditions," he said.

"It's been freezing, frosty, raining. The airport really does not care."

Tourists had been complaining to him about the "un-welcome reception".

"They tell me they heard nice things about New Zealand but that on the first night they're kicked out into the cold. It's a really bad look for us for people coming into Christchurch."

Christchurch Airport chief executive Jim Boult said his airport was "not an accommodation provider".

"Airports all over the world, like many other businesses, close when they are not doing business. There are no flights at Christchurch Airport between the last arrivals around midnight and the first departures around 6am."

Boult said after the earthquakes the airport had allowed people caught between flights to stay, but numbers got out of control.

"Word spread and numbers grew, not just of people caught between flights, but of people who didn't want to look or pay for accommodation in Christchurch ahead of a flight, and not just in the early morning, but sometimes 24 hours ahead of a daytime flight."

Between March 2011 and February 2012, the average number of people sleeping at the airport per night was 82, with a maximum of 260 on one night.

Between November 2012 and April this year, the average per night has been 72, with a maximum of 200.

There were cases of people sleeping at the airport for up to a week at a time, Boult said.

Some were aggressive towards staff and the airport had received "numerous complaints" from air crew arriving on late flights, who found themselves in a "third world" environment, "having to climb over bodies sprawled on the floor to get through the terminal".

They had also received criticism from accommodation providers in the city for "taking business away".

Boult said they were concerned about people sleeping in the cold but that there was "no need for them to do so".

"We give them a viable alternative (information about nearby accommodation) and they make a conscious choice not to take it up."

The Press visited the airport in the early hours of Friday morning and many tourists were left stranded, sleeping against fences. Up to three stayed in one bus stop.

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Julia Matyas, 20, from Switzerland, flew in alone after midnight and wanted to wait in the airport til 5am, when her female friend was due to arrive.

"I expected more from a rich country," she said.

"I had better treatment in Asia."

She met a group of four German tourists who had also arrived late at night and were waiting for a campervan hire office to open at 8am.

They tried to sleep in the stairwell of the parking building, but were told by two airport staff to leave airport property until 5am.

The group went to the nearby McDonald's restaurant, but were told only the drive-through was operational and they could not be served without a car.

Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter supports the move.

"I think it is people choosing to stay over in the airport to minimise the cost of accommodation," he said.

"There are not a lot of airports in this part of the world that let you sleep over."

Sleeping in airports is a rite of passage for many tourists.

Auckland International Airport's terminal is open all day every day and does not prevent people from sleeping there and Wellington Airport closes its terminal after the last international flight at 1.30am and opens at 3.30am.

During this time, access is restricted to the building.

- The Press

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