Rotorua: the two sides of the tourism boom
New Zealand's tourist hotspots are creaking under the pressure of ever-increasing visitor numbers and a lack of facilities. ERIN SPEEDY looks at Rotorua's struggle with its own success.
Christmas is coming many times a year for Steve Roberts.
Rotorua's Adventure Playground, where he is chief executive, offers clay bird shooting, quad-biking and horse treks. Visitor numbers are growing at 80 per cent a year. The company had taken on an extra 15 staff over the last three years to cope with the added load.
"We can have some huge weekends and you'd think it's Christmas time and we've never had that before," he said.
Roberts put the exponential growth down to more conference and corporate visitors and the burgeoning Chinese market.
"We've never dealt with the Chinese group market but we've been warming that pot for a wee while now, and it'll be the key for us diversifying."
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Tourism in Rotorua, like the rest of New Zealand, changing. On the one hand, the region is coping well with the unprecedented growth in tourist numbers and spending. It has off-season promotion, some of the biggest conference centres in the country and a plan to spread tourists around the region as much as possible.
But the rapid growth is putting pressure on its infrastructure. There are new initiatives to manage the spike in numbers but the region still needs a lot of work.
Tourism is worth more than $700 million a year to Rotorua. Local operators say a lack of accommodation and flight connectivity to key destinations like Queenstown, Christchurch and Australia is holding back further growth.
During the off-season, Rotorua hosts sporting events and activities making it more than just a tourism destination, Roberts said.
"New Zealand and particularly Rotorua doesn't have one single identity. It used to be about Maori culture and plastic tikis, whereas there's so many sporting events now.
"There's a lot of activities now that are just one weekend folding into the next and into the next, so it gets to the stage where accommodation is going to be the big hold up."
Along with the accommodation shortage and lack of flights, the time-consuming resource consent application process was stifling development, Roberts said.
"Any new activity you put on, you've got to apply for resource consent and it's a very, very timely process and expensive too."
Bruce Thomasen, the chief executive of gondola and luge attraction Skyline Rotorua, said the region was hosting more than 1.5m overnight visitors every year. That was expected to grow to about 2m by 2025.
Hotels were running at 75 per cent capacity, he said, and if more accommodation was not built they would be full before 2025.
"Rotorua needs a 200-room plus five-star hotel. This is a clear niche missing in our accommodation offering and will enable Rotorua to capitalise and get value from the growing demand for high-end accommodation and services."
Skyline itself has invested more than $6m in the last four years on new products and growth.
"We are also focused on . . . [improving] efficiencies in our service delivery so we can deliver more quality to more guests with the same number of staff," Thomasen said.
"This means more training, better layout and more innovations."
Rotorua needs improved water and mainline sewerage facilities to cope with the expected growth. The Rotorua Lakes Council is working on upgrades.
Deputy Mayor Dave Donaldson said jettys, boat ramps and parking areas were also under constant pressure during peak tourism season.
"We need to take a critical look at all of that infrastructure and see whether it is fit for purpose to provide those great visitor experiences."
To that end, the council was merging two development bodies – Destination Rotorua and Grow Rotorua – to become an economic development Council Controlled Organisation (CCO).
"Council doesn't build motels, it's the industry. It's about getting a strategy and providing the level of confidence," Donaldson said.
The CCO would focus on attracting investment and growing visitor numbers, while encouraging those who came to stay longer and do more. It had a goal of achieving a $1 billion visitor spend by 2030.
"We're way ahead of targets trending towards that so we will get there anyway," Donaldson said, "My personal view is that we can aim higher than that.
"The members of that advisory group are our economic leaders and some of our tourism leaders and they will help us set that vision, take it out and get the community and industry and business to buy into it."
Donaldson said key performance indicators such as the Crankworx Mountain Bike Festival, World Spa, the Redwoods Treewalk and the latest initiative – an annual mud festival – were all extending Rotorua's appeal.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has invested $1.5m in the Mud Festival, which would start next year framed around Rotorua's geothermal activity.
Donaldson said they had a few initiatives up their sleeve which they wanted to "crack on to quickly" – but everything was under wraps for now.
"Once you have that vision then it's the industry and the developers who will decide what is the right product."