Cuts leave Murchison in suspense

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 15:29 24/02/2014
Titanfall

HANGING ON: The Buller Gorge Swingbridge near Murchison is a major visitor attraction. Locals fear the area’s future is in the balance, with council tourism funding in doubt.

Titanfall
WORRIED Murchison residents, from left, Daryl Ealand Simon Blakemore, Sylvia van der Oest, Rex Barrick, Princess Hart, and Karen Steadman.
Titanfall
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: German tourist Alexander Ghrim gets information from Murchison Information Centre supervisor Leanne Ealam.

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The Tasman District Council is cutting tourism funding, worrying Murchison locals who say they depend on travellers for their livelihood. Naomi Arnold reports.

About 11am every morning during summer, Murchison begins to fill up with rental cars. Travellers are a pretty predictable bunch, and Murchison locals are used to interpreting their whims and rhythms.

They will have spent the night on the West Coast or in Nelson, and will have enjoyed a leisurely start to their day and a nice two-hour drive through bush and farmland, past sparkling rivers and steep mountains swathed in native bush.

By the time they reach Murchison, they're usually ready for a break, and get out for a stretch, a coffee, a pie or a visit to the toilet. They stroll down to Somebody's Treasure and poke about for antiques, or stop at Four Square for groceries. They spy the visitor centre on the main street, and have a chat with the staff to find out what there is to do in the area. Travellers are always looking for something to do.

In fact, quite a few of them walk into the visitor centre - hundreds each day, and up to 25,000 a year. In summer, the centre is open from 10am to 6pm, seven days a week, and it's the central point for travellers to book accommodation, find out about local art, or book a kayaking trip.

Some will check out the local attractions and declare their intention to amble up to Mt Owen in the afternoon to see where Lord of the Rings scenes were filmed. Staff will tactfully divert them to a walk that is less formidable. Either way, they emerge into the sunlight with fresh ideas about what to do, clutching brochures and maps.

But the Tasman District Council is winding down its tourism funding, and the visitor centre is slated to close for good on Black Friday, June 13, with the loss of two fulltime and two part-time staff.

If the closure goes ahead, locals fear there might not be much reason left for travellers to stop at all. In a town built on tourism, that is a big deal.

When the Nelson Mail visits on a sunny weekday morning, Waller St is lined with campervans and rental cars. There's a relaxed holiday air, with travellers lounging around drinking coffee, crowding around the free Telecom wi-fi phone booths, and hanging out in cars with open doors.

Sydney visitors Sandy and Harold Creighton have just emerged from the visitor centre. They stayed the night in Nelson and are on their way to the Buller Gorge swingbridge before hitting the West Coast, but there are a few other attractions they're going to check out, thanks to the advice from the staff at the visitor centre.

"Penny wise and pound foolish," Mrs Creighton says of the closure.

"I think it's very important to have a place like this. They must never close it. What would happen to the town if people didn't stop here on the way through?"

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That's exactly what a group of residents, the Murchison Visitor Centre Liaison Group, is afraid of.

It's something that's been coming for a while. The Murchison Visitor Centre was a volunteer-run organisation until Nelson Tasman Tourism took it over. Last April, following a review, NTT announced that it would close the Golden Bay and Murchison i-Sites, which were running at an annual loss of about $60,000 each. It would focus on "destination marketing", selling the whole region as a fabulous place to come.

The global recession had brought fewer visitors to the region, NTT chief executive Lynda Keene said, and more bookings were being made online, leading to a drop in visitor numbers and revenue.

She could not be reached for comment this week.

It came to a head on Wednesday morning, when, as a response to NTT's decision, the TDC agreed to fund four visitor centres - up to $50,000 for Motueka, $30,000 for Golden Bay, $12,000 for Murchison (a drop in funding of $38,000 a year), and $8000 for Richmond in the 2014/14 financial year. That decision is now up for consultation, but the TDC's baseline position is that there will be no more ratepayer funding for tourism.

The same day, on a warm evening in Murchison, 60 people attended a public meeting and agreed to find a way to keep the centre open.

The liaison group says the funding shortfall will be felt much harder in a town of 800 where the attractions are numerous but not as well known as those further north. Twelve times Murchison's population goes through the i-Site each year, a higher ratio than any other information centre in the region.

The locals feel forgotten and unappreciated.

"We don't feel they're taking us seriously at all and don't feel the value we are to the region," Commercial Hotel owner Sylvia van der Oest says.

"We all know the council's up to its neck in debt and they're

looking at how to reduce their costs," Murchison Motorhome Park owner and real estate agent Karen Steadman says. "It's easy for the council to not be so involved in our community on a day-to-day basis, and therefore they have no real understanding of what goes on here."

Although much of the argument for reducing rates spending on tourism comes from Tasman's rural community, she says every household in Murchison benefits from tourism, though many of those in the industry earn minimum wage.

Other centres, for example, can't guarantee holiday work for local students like Murchison can.

Farmer and Murchison and Districts Community Council chairman Simon Blakemore says the centre is more important in such a small town. It is many tourists' first point of contact for Tasman District, not to mention the West Coast.

Artists Rex Barrick and Princess Hart will be opening a gallery in the town soon. Mr Barrick says financial cuts have more impact on remote areas.

In cities, he says, there are lots of things people can see and do. "Out here, it's not so obvious, and the lion's share of the funding should come to the rural areas. It looks like the distribution of the money is a bit out of focus."

Mobil Murchison owner Darryl Ealam already has "literally hundreds" of visitors asking him questions at his service station every day. He directs them to the information centre, and shudders to think how he and his staff would handle the hundreds of extra requests they would get each day if the centre closes.

He and his staff do their best, he says, but it's an enormous relief to be able to direct people to an accurate and professional service to make sure they're getting the right information.

"If it closes, [tourists] are only going to get unprofessional and misinformed information."

Murchison Area School principal Tina Johnson says closing the centre would be "absolutely devastating" for tourism and the community.

"There are so many services that us locals use the info centre for," she says, citing vehicle registration as one.

Cheryl McKay, who recently moved to Murchison from Australia, says a lack of professional advice creates safety problems. Uninformed visitors taking off into the bush by themselves, unfamiliar with roads, weather and local conditions, are asking for trouble and an expensive emergency services bill.

Will the council's proposed funding spell the end of the centre? Right now, that's - literally - the $64,000 question.

For a few years now, the members of the liaison group have given up their evenings, driving hundreds of kilometres over gravel roads, working full days and then meeting late into the night, to work out a way to keep the centre open.

They have a plan, which will cost just over $64,000 a year, to combine the library, council services and the visitor centre in one building. But even with the council's contribution - including a salary for the library - they're $22,000 short, and that's not taking into account the years beyond 2015, when council funding will dry up.

To his credit, Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne spent an hour at the visitor centre while he was in town for the Murchison A&P Show last weekend - and was duly harassed by locals who did not agree with the council's direction.

"The likelihood is that many people in the tourist sector will say we just want [the council] to keep money in," Mr Kempthorne says. "But what the council is saying is that we can't see justification for general ratepayer funding for this. It should be coming through from the tourism sector."

He agrees that all of Murchison benefits from the tourism trade, but says some of the more outlying farmers benefit a lot less than people in the town itself.

"There's still a shortfall of money that needs to be supplied by people in Murchison."

Mr Blakemore says that's impossible. Local businesses already pay thousands of dollars each year to advertise at the centre, and it's difficult to pull more money out of a town of 800. He say there's no hope of getting the additional $22,000 from the community.

"And you can't volunteer at something that's run at a professional level," Ms Steadman adds. "Those days are gone."

She says that although people might browse options online and book a couple of things, they very rarely book their entire holiday online, where the amount of information is overwhelming.

She says independent travellers appreciate freedom, and like to talk with locals about what might suit them personally. In her experience, it takes three sources of information for someone to stop at her campground - the internet, advertisements and brochures, and word of mouth.

At the meeting on Wednesday night, people discussed several options.

One is for a local business to tack an information centre on to its existing operations. Another is to ask for the $12,000 in annual TDC funding to be extended past 2015.

A third idea is to ask the TDC if it would consider a targeted rate for the Murchison area, which Lakes-Murchison ward councillor Stuart Bryant indicated could stretch from the Gowan Valley south to the county boundaries of the Maruia and Buller rivers. This would allow the group to go ahead with its plan to build the combined centre.

But creating a targeted rate is a long, complicated process, Cr Bryant says, and he has asked council chief executive Lindsay McKenzie for further information, including how many ratepayers would be affected.

Mr Kempthorne says he doesn't know what the outcome of the targeted rate idea might be. "It has been looked at once before, and it didn't generate unanimous support."

The Natural Flames Experience and Murchison Lodge bed and breakfast owner Merve Bigden says that although the issue is causing a lot of stress in the town, Murchison definitely needs an information centre.

"I've travelled extensively myself, and if there is no information centre in a town, it's easily assumed there's nothing to get information about," he says.

For those who argue that tourism operators get a free ride through council subsidies, Mr Bidgen says that as a business owner, he pays for the centre through his rates, the advertising charges at the centre, and, if that advertising is successful, a commission of 12.5 per cent. Customers also may pay extra through a credit card fee of 1.5 per cent.

He says the centre staff do well under a lot of pressure to make bookings, but even so, there still needs to be council input.

"More and more visitors book online, and this business model seems to be not working."

Mr Bigden says many of his guests have found i-Site staff in other regions "quite sales-pushy" and have questioned their impartiality. "We don't want to get like that."

Whatever system Murchison ends up going for, he says it will need council help.

"We're called the gateway to Tasman. It'd be nuts for the TDC not to have a presence here."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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