Backpackers squeezed out

JOELLE DALLY
Last updated 05:00 18/01/2014
Christchurch YMCA
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ

SQUASH: Christchurch YMCA guests James Weight, 16, and fellow rowers from Christ Church Grammar School in Perth booked a year in advance to ensure accommodation at the hostel, where beds are scarce. The students are here to compete in the Canterbury Rowing Championships.

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Backpackers are sneaking into Christchurch hostels at night pretending they have bookings, or dossing down on strangers' couches as the city's low-cost accommodation providers struggle to keep up with demand.

Hostels say they are run off their feet coping with increasing numbers of tourists arriving in the city with tight daily budgets - and nothing booked.

Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter said that although the city's motel and hotel bed numbers had largely recovered, the cheaper end of the market was taking "a lot longer than [expected]".

There are now 26 backpackers' in the city. Before the earthquakes there were 38. Among those gone were large facilities with several hundred beds, Hunter said.

Peak tourist months were December to March, and the Botanic Gardens i-SITE Visitor Centre had extended its summer opening hours to 7pm as scores of "last-minute" backpackers turned up late in the day, he said.

Backpacking travellers were also "extremely price-sensitive". There were plenty of beds in the $40-$60 a night category, but most backpackers were unwilling to pay that much.

"They want to spent about $30 a night. Some would rather leave Christchurch than pay $10 extra. That's the cost we pay for not being able to meet their needs," Hunter said.

City YMCA accommodation manager Todd Schmidt said staff were "constantly kicking free-loaders out of here".

One night last week they found eight people sleeping on couches in a common area. They had sneaked in before the 10pm closing time.

The attack on a 20-year-old German tourist in the bus exchange, after he was turned away by Christchurch Hospital and a youth hostel late on January 4, exemplified the "awful predicament we're in".

Schmidt said the YMCA had been at least 90 per cent full since November 1, and things had been even busier since Monday.

He said in "emergencies only", the YMCA put down roll beds in the dorm rooms.

"Everyone's so full. It's just madness," Schmidt said.

"Backpackers come from Queenstown where it's $26 a night and they get dinner and breakfast - $30 is a bargain in this city."

At The Right Place BBH, which has beds from $27 to $79, has also caught people "sneaking in".

Co-owner Kim Tewhata said her husband would find them sleeping on the lounge couches early in the morning. Last year, two Kiwi men stole keys to a vacant motel unit and slept there for a week before they were caught.

Tewhata said they had turned some of their motel units into dorm rooms due to the demand for cheaper beds.

Jailhouse Accommodation Backpacker Hostel, where accommodation costs $32 to $92 a night, has been full "pretty much every night" since Christmas, manager Nikki Hayhurst said.

Backpackers often paid for the more expensive rooms, despite having budgeted for less, simply to avoid walking the city with heavy bags, she said.

Thomas's Hotel opened on January 3 with beds priced from $32 to $140 a night. Owner Jan Atkinson said she had been struggling to keep on top of the demand.

Their dorm rooms were full every night, while overall they averaged 90 per cent.

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Hunter said that during last year's Ellerslie Flower Show, things got so tight that some travellers slept on the couches of iSITE staff.

"It's better that happens than they sleep in the Botanic Gardens," he said.

Last year, there was a 26 per cent increase in the number of international travellers staying in Christchurch. In 2012, that increase was 1 per cent.

ACCOMMODATION NUMBERS

❏ 280 Accommodation providers in Christchurch

❏ 26 Backpackers in the city

❏ 110 Motels in the city, most in the suburbs

❏ 572 More hotel rooms in central Christchurch than this time last year

❏ 71 Couch surfers looking for a Christchurch couch to sleep on.

❏ 26% Increase in travellers staying overnight in Christchurch in 2013

Source: Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism/Couchsurfers.com

- The Press

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