Hanmer Springs at heart of Hurunui

CROWDS: On a busy day 5000 people visit the Hanmer Springs hot pools.
CROWDS: On a busy day 5000 people visit the Hanmer Springs hot pools.

Nestled at the base of the Southern Alps, the Hanmer thermal springs have drawn visitors to Hurunui for decades.

But while they are best known as an occasional holiday activity for many Cantabrians, the springs are also at the centre of the Hurunui district's economy.

They draw 520,000 visitors a year, and at peak times up to 5000 go through the pool complex doors in a single day.

INVESTMENT: In 2010, $7.5m was spent on improvements.
INVESTMENT: In 2010, $7.5m was spent on improvements.

Of these, almost half are estimated to be visitors from outside Canterbury, whose tourist dollars fund the region's accommodation and hospitality industry.

The pools belong to the Hurunui District Council, and have become a key financier of civic development in the region.

They provide the largest chunk of the council's yearly income, making up almost a third of the total revenue, and earn more for the council each year than the region's targeted rates. Last financial year the pools turned over more than $10 million in revenue, and this year are predicted to make an operating profit of $2.2m.

NOT JUST POOLS: The mountain village attracts visitors year-round.
NOT JUST POOLS: The mountain village attracts visitors year-round.

Over the years the pools have played host to nude Victorian bathers, injured soldiers after World War I, and recovering drug addicts at the Queen Mary Hospital.

They were acquired by the council in the 1960s, and since they were commercialised in the late 1990s, council manager Graeme Abbot said the pools have not had a loss in sixteen years of recorded figures.

They have a "huge economic impact" on the area.

The pools employ 108 locals, the equivalent of around 70 full-time jobs - a big employer in a village with only 1000 permanent residents.

Revenue goes to funding local facilities, maintaining the area's parks and reserves, and subsidising rates for residents, all important funds to an area that sustains a small town's infrastructure on a village's population.

Abbot said returns had grown steadily, matching the level of council investment. In 2010, the council invested $7.5m into aquatherapy pools, a new freshwater pool, lazy river and landscaping.

Abbot said the tourism aspect meant the pools were essential to the region's economy.

"You only have to look at Hanmer to see a large reason for the town infrastructure is due to the success of the pools and people coming to Hanmer Springs.

"And geographically, we are situated at the far end of the Hurunui, so by attracting people to the pools, we bring a lot of people right through the district."

Council investment in promoting the pools had a flow-on effect, which benefited the whole region.

"We have a large investment in marketing, and while that marketing is first and foremost about the pools, it encourages people to come to Hanmer Springs and as a result of that they will do other things," Abbot said.

A local economy so reliant on a single enterprise can seem tenuous, and Hanmer Business Association chairman Paul Baigent said locals worked hard to showcase the broader appeal of the mountain village.

"It's a really good business model, building tourism around the hot pools. But now that we've got so many more businesses surrounding that core business, we need to start expanding our vision," Baigent said.

"Our challenge now is to get across to people that Hanmer is much more than the pools, without taking that image away."

In the year following the Christchurch earthquakes, the pools reported "dramatic" growth, as Cantabrians sought a safe haven to escape the city.

This year, Abbot said Christchurch visitor numbers had declined, but national and international tourists were on the rise, so overall numbers remained steady.

Kim Preston, who has run Hanmer's mini golf for the last 12 years, said around 75 per cent of his custom was from Cantabrians, and that while the springs were a standout feature of the village, it was "not all about the pools".

"People are drawn to the natural environment of the mountains and the forest and walks. The hot pools are a key part of Hanmer - if the pools weren't there, Hanmer certainly wouldn't be as popular - but there's a lot of other things that attract people," he said.

Preston said the fact the pools were council-owned meant they were able to support, rather than compete with, local industry.

"They are a good corporate social member. They invest a lot of money in infrastructure and marketing and advertising, but their sole focus isn't profit driven. There are community-orientated goals as well."

Baigent said the pools were a key part of the business community's success, and the local council was "to be congratulated" for setting up and operating the business so successfully.

"I can't see that [private ownership] would work and be as beneficial generally to businesses. It would just be fragmented."

The Press