Two days a tourist in the Garden City
Following reports of tourists skipping central Christchurch, and calls for the CBD to provide a better visitor experience, reporter MICHAEL HAYWARD spent two days mingling with visitors and taking in the sights of the Garden City.
Looking down from the eleventh floor of the Crowne Plaza at night, the lights of central Christchurch shine brightly, but gazing out in the light of day, the post-earthquake reality is clear.
From one window of the corner room, the half-built Central Library partially obscures the broken husk of the Christ Church Cathedral. On the other side, the foreground is dominated by the flat expanse of the convention centre site and the fences surrounding the rebuild of Victoria Square.
This is the view greeting tourists staying in the Garden City's newest five-star hotel, just two weeks old. Similar vistas are on display from the other CBD hotels scattered across the surrounding blocks.
The earthquake damage and rebuild is fundamental to issues facing tourism operators in the central city. But that rebuild, which seems to be gaining momentum, is crucial to tourism in the city – and is starting to show results.
* Welcome to Christchurch and to the south
* Canterbury guest nights up but Christchurch city still suffering
* Hotel vacancies in Christchurch 'highest since the earthquakes'
* Tourist guest nights up despite colder weather
* Christchurch needs to 'fight' for slice of NZ's tourism boom
* Match scheduling and stadium issues means South Island likely to miss full benefits of the Lions tour
* Rents and road works play havoc with some Christchurch hospitality businesses
The most recent Statistics New Zealand Accommodation Survey, released on Wednesday, showed Christchurch guest nights in May had increased by nearly 5000 compared to the same month the year before, an increase of 2.7 per cent.
But last week, ChristchurchNZ business development manager Caroline Blanchfield said few visitors were coming into the Christchurch CBD, which needed to offer a "better" visitor experience than it did now.
We wanted to see for ourselves what Christchurch had to offer, so set up a two-day "holiday" to take in the attractions of central city, and along the way find out what tourists thought of their experiences.
We started with a trip to the i-SITE, newly-installed in the refurbished Christchurch Arts Centre, to see what holiday-makers were being advised to do. Arriving about 9.30am, we were the only people in the building, though a handful of families and couples trickled in as we planned our holiday.
The advice on what to do in town did not throw up any surprises, but the suggestions were more than enough to fill a couple of days.
A lot of the attractions, such as the Botanic Gardens, Cathedral Square, Cardboard Cathedral, and city's street art were free things to go and look at rather than things to do. Even the paid attractions like the gondola and tram tours were in a similar vein.
For our morning, we rented bikes and headed to the red zone for a riverside ride. It was a beautiful way to spend a morning, and we almost had the place to ourselves.
After lunch at the Boat Shed Cafe, which was overflowing with hungry patrons, we headed to Christchurch's top-rated attraction on TripAdvisor.
The Botanic Gardens were full of school holiday groups and camera-wielding tourists making the most of the mild weather.
The Dose family were making their way along the main path towards the visitor centre.
Letitia Dose said walking through the city, the earthquake damage "still has a feeling that it's just happened".
"You can see parts seem to matter and they're being built, and other parts [are] totally neglected, and you think 'oh, I wonder who made that decision?'"
The family planned to spend two nights in the Garden City before heading to the snow, and finishing with another couple of nights in Christchurch.
Though she had really enjoyed her time in the city, Dose would like to see the city become more affordable, and for campervan parking to be easier.
"We shuddered when we saw the price of having a punt along the river."
Dawn Swallow and her 6-year-old daughter, Emily, were over from Perth for a week's skiing, but came to Christchurch to visit family and look around.
Before her trip, Swallow had talked to the sister of a work colleague, who had recently visited Christchurch and left unimpressed.
"She said she was amazed at how much rubble and stuff from the earthquake was still around.
"But I thought it was great to be honest. You kind of look past all that because there's other things around to look at."
Behind Swallow, the sunny tables of the Ilex Cafe were full despite lunchtime being well behind us.
We wandered along to Cathedral Square, which was busy with the temporary ice rink set up for the school holidays. Tourists were coming and going constantly, as was the case each of the many times we walked through the square over our two-day stint.
Outside the fenced-off Christ Church Cathedral, we chatted with a family of three on a walking tour of the city.
Barbara Collins said when looking for things to do on the internet, everything was about the quake damage in the city.
She told us about her experience at a local restaurant the night before. A staff member there had made some suggestions about what they should do on their holiday, and all the suggestions had been out of town activities.
Collins said there was a need to make Christchurch "more focussed within, rather than a place to go out from".
Sister's Debbie and Judy Lee, over from Brisbane and wrapped in thick coats against the cold, found there were not very many attractions in the central city.
"Because there's a lot of construction on, maybe in a few years time there will be more finished buildings and places to go," said Judy Lee.
Before coming to Christchurch, Lee did some online research of the city. She said most articles she found were talking about the earthquake and how everything was still being rebuilt.
We headed out to the Christchurch Gondola for the late afternoon light, catching the shuttle from outside the museum. The only other passengers were a Kiwi family in Christchurch for a wedding, who kept to themselves.
The top of the gondola was much busier, despite the late afternoon visit. Several groups took in the views from the platform.
We struck up a conversation with a pair of backpackers. American Victor Rogachevsky and Swede Erik Alrup both agreed Christchurch had less to do than other centres they had visited.
Rogachevsky said it was "definitely a bit quiet" and was hard to "find the life" of the city.
"There's not many people walking in the streets, even in the middle of the day on Saturday."
He said it made Christchurch a "good resting town", which made a nice change when moving around a lot as a traveller, and was planning to use it as a "take-off point" for other trips.
"It's not a bad thing to necessarily be in a city that's a bit quieter".
Alrup said he really liked Christchurch's "keep calm and carry on" feel.
When we got to the hotel, the reception was quiet and when we asked to be moved to a room on a higher floor, the staff member said we could because occupancy was low.
Walking through town on a Monday night, the streets were almost completely empty, but several food joints were full of people. At Little High Eatery it was so crowded people had spilled into the outside area despite the winter chill.
Inside was bustling, but seemed to be mostly filled with local residents – a positive sign of some life returning to the downtown area.
Despite the early start of the construction workers, our sleep was uninterrupted but once we woke the rumble of the diggers and cranes was apparent in the background.
We did not expect much from the Christchurch Tram Tour, but found the iconic attraction to be informative and engaging. The driver, who was narrating the tour, spent a lot of time outlining what had been damaged in the quakes and where things were at with the rebuild, talking more than once about how good the area would be when the construction work was complete.
The Canterbury Museum was playing host to both visitors and families enjoying school holidays, and seemed to impress all patrons who were engaged by the exhibitions.
Lunchtime at the Container Mall was busy, but most of those in the food court were rebuild workers clad in high-vis.
At the adjacent Bridge of Remembrance, Virgin Dabhi was taking a photo of her sister-in-law Shalini Gaur, visiting from New Delhi, India.
Dabhi, who has lived in Christchurch for about three years, said it had been easy to find things for the pair to do.
Gaur, who is in New Zealand for a month, was impressed by the clean environment and friendly people in Christchurch.
"I'm finding it so beautiful, exploring every day, and finding new things every day."
Dabhi said Gaur, an art lecturer back home, had already said she wanted to buy a house here.
Robert and Sharon McIntyre have visited several times since the earthquakes. When they were here about four years ago, little bits of the city were open but there was nowhere to stay in the CBD.
Robert McIntyre said at the rate it was being rebuilt, it would be another 18 months to two years before the city was "an attraction in its own right".
"Once the cathedral gets rebuilt, I think Christchurch is actually going to come really back to life."
He said there was enough in the city now to "spend a couple of days wandering around".
"Once you get a few of the buildings open, and you actually get rid of the scaffolding and all the blocked off areas, this is going to be a magnificent place to come again. It's not quite there yet, but you'd certainly spend a day or two here."
Back at Cathedral Square, the weather was beginning to turn but sightseers were still taking in the damaged cathedral.
Holly Forde, from Canada, found the city so engaging she decided to stay another night.
"It's really interesting to see the artsy and modern, and [the] construction."
Forde was staying with Christchurch resident Jenna Walsh, after the pair connected through a facebook group for international travellers.
Walsh believed Christchurch was better for tourists now than it was before the earthquakes.
"It's quite alternative now, which I find amazing, because prior earthquake, I found it quite boring to be honest."
Forde said there was plenty to see and experience, and she enjoyed the atmosphere of the city.
"Maybe not always exhibitions or specific attractions, but just to walk around and experience is often my favourite attraction of any city."
The Margaret Mahy Family Playground is the third most popular Christchurch attraction listed on TripAdvisor, behind the Botanic Gardens and Banks Peninsula. In fine weather at the start of the school holidays, the slides, swings and flying foxes were in constant use.
John and Sue Barrack, visiting from near Fielding, wished they had their grandchildren along to enjoy the "incredible" playground.
The couple were spending one day in the city, before taking a trip on the TranzAlpine and spending a day with friends later in the week.
Sue Barrack said there were "quite a few things" they wanted to do which were closed for the winter season, such as the Quake City museum that is relocating.
The couple are staying out of town at private accommodation to be near the beach. Barrack said they "never even considered staying in the centre of the city".
John Barrack said other than a night at the theatre and some meals in town, there was "not a lot of money being spent at the [city] centre".
After a quick trip to the Cardboard Cathedral and 185 white chairs, we took the worsening rain to be a sign our holiday was over.
Looking at Christchurch as a tourist gave me a greater appreciation of the central city. I've lived here nearly a year-and-a-half, but most of that time has been spent outside the CBD. I tend to go in only when I must, with the rest of my time was spent in the suburbs – a situation no doubt familiar to many residents.
We found downtown was a surprisingly nice place to be. The shape of post-quake Christchurch is becoming clearer through all the construction, and the emerging city is going to be an attractive place to live or visit, but there is still a little way to go before it gets there.
In our two days in town we did not get bored, did not miss our car and did not run out of things to do – in fact, there is still plenty we plan to go and see in the near future. We were surprised by how compact the central city is and how easy it was to get between the sights and attractions.
At the moment the city is a place of walking and looking, rather than somewhere to go from high-profile activity to activity. For many travellers this works, as looking for the differences between here and home is what will make their trip memorable. It's no different from many other high-profile tourist destinations around the world.
When I talked to Blanchfield after our trip, she said visitor perception surveys showed impressions of the central city were improving.
She said ChristchurchNZ had a visitor strategy it would follow, which was "all about engaging in the CBD".
"We have some perceptions to overcome, that's a huge focus for us."