Festival's 40th lauds town boom

From sleepy town to party central

Last updated 14:48 22/06/2014
Winter Festival opening
BIG BANG THEORY: The fireworks display celebrating the opening of the 40th Queenstown Winter Festival lights up the sky.
2014 Queenstown Winter Festival
The Queenstown Winter Festival parade.

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Forty years ago Queenstown had three pubs, a smattering of accommodation and a sleepy little airport.

For the 40th year of the Queenstown Winter Festival, the resort welcomed tens of thousands of people for a 10-day spectacular.

The festival started in earnest on Saturday with the Main St parade in downtown Queenstown, hot tubs in Earnslaw Park and a Narnia-themed ball at the Memorial Centre.

Today, festival-goers can choose from the Day on the Bay with the infamous birdman competition, a race at Coronet Peak and the comedy debate with Tim Shadbolt, Paul Ego and host Jeremy Corbett.

In the mid-70s, New Zealand's annual visitor tally stood at six figures but today 2.75 million people visit the country each year, and Queenstown Airport is one of the fastest-growing in Australasia.

The resort welcomed about 200,000 visitors in 1975 but, in 2014, that figure has risen to 1.2 million.

A 10-000 strong crowd packed Earnslaw Park and Queenstown Bay foreshore on Friday night for fireworks and the start of the annual party season.

Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Vanessa van Uden told the crowd to have a wonderful night.

"This is a special night - 40 years we have been doing this in Queenstown. Welcome to the party, welcome to Queenstown."

Associate Tourism Minister Todd McClay - taking the spot usually overseen by Prime Minister John Key - said the most important part of New Zealand last night was Queenstown.

"It's the most amazing festival, here to celebrate 40 years."

Former mayor Clive Geddes, who helped start Winter Festival in the 70s, said progress was driven as much by world events as the people who lived and worked in the resort.

"The population of Queenstown was 4000 in 1975. The tourism season ran from October to May, there was nothing in between. We retired to one of the three pubs at 4pm, and at 10pm we drove home. After a while, you got good at it."

Geddes said the number of attractions back then was limited, the most exciting activity was Shotover Jet and there was one rafting company.

"In the next 40 years, the advantages of living here will always outweigh the disadvantages. There will be a resident population in the order of 55,000 to 65,000 people. There will be somewhere between 6 and 7.5 million visitors a year."

Today, Queenstown is a year-round destination, with more than 300 licensed premises, 60 major hotels and resorts, 28 caravan parks and campgrounds, 105 motels, 40 backpackers and hostels, and about 15,000 beds.

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