Good case for cities to share skills

Air New Zealand, with the support of Christchurch Airport, on December 4 started a direct flight between Christchurch and Perth, which it is estimated will bring about $15 million to the South Island economy by the time the seasonal flights finish at the end of April. Business editor Dene Mackenzie was on the inaugural flight.

Perth is facing growing unemployment and Christchurch needs skilled and unskilled workers to help with the rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged city. Photo supplied.
Perth is facing growing unemployment and Christchurch needs skilled and unskilled workers to help with the rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged city. Photo supplied.
Much was made of the links between Christchurch and Perth during a visit to the Western Australian city by 26 industry and travel leaders and executives and assorted media earlier this month.

Perth is said to be reinventing itself as it faces an influx of about 1500 new residents a week. Flying into Perth, the landscape seems scarred but not with mining. New housing estates are springing up on sand dunes almost as far as the eye can see.

Christchurch is rebuilding itself, because it has to, and the reasons for the two cities to share their expertise seem compelling.

Christchurch needs skilled and unskilled workers to help with the rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged city and Perth is facing growing unemployment. In some parts of WA, unemployment is close to 12% as a slowdown in the demand for ore and other resources, along with falling gold prices, makes life tough for the junior resources companies. Some ''small-cap miners'' are just hanging on for the year to end. After a peak in June, the companies have faced sliding value.

Canterbury Employers and Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend, who was on the whirlwind trip to Perth, said the city's construction industry had been through an enormous boom but seemed to be slowing.

''There are 70,000 Kiwis living in Perth, some directly working with the mining industry. There are a lot of skills available in the construction industry. While Kiwis have been moving to the west coast [of Australia], we are hoping some Kiwis can come back to work in Christchurch.''

With the direct flights between Perth and Christchurch, working in Christchurch did not necessarily mean relocating back permanently.

The flight between Christchurch and Perth was three hours shorter than having to fly to Auckland and then down to the South Island, he said.

''I expect some ebb and flow between the two cities.''

However, Mr Townsend did not expect his organisation or his members to actively advertise for staff in Perth. Rather, he expected them to rely on social media, family links and contacts with friends working in the same types of jobs.

Mining executives spoken to last week, in a separate part of the trip undertaken by the ODT, said mining workers were being laid off in droves and felt Christchurch employers should talk to resource companies directly about what skills laid-off staff had. Although many had skills specific to mining, engineering staff had a wide range of skills that could be employed in the city's rebuild.

Christchurch Airport general manager aeronautical business development Matthew Findlay had worked on helping establish the direct link for more than two years.

The airport was providing ''support'' for the link rather than underwriting Air New Zealand, he said.

The airport company had invested a ''significant amount of money'' in the project but Mr Findlay would not disclose how much, despite persistent questioning.

Mr Findlay said the Otago Daily Times did not understand the rationale behind the airport's long-term plan behind the support.

The airport was looking long-term with the idea of helping the route become profitable for Air New Zealand, thereby extending the season.

While he talked about attracting WA skiers to the South Island, the inaugural service finished in April. At the cocktail function welcoming the New Zealand party to Perth, no inbound WA tourism operators were present, something which concerned some of those on the trip.

Mr Findlay said those operators had been hosted a month or so previously, despite the New Zealand operators being keen on the night to talk to their WA counterparts. One would have welcomed the opportunity to talk to a WA operator.

At the function, WA Tourism Minister Liza Harvey made much of attracting New Zealand visitors to Perth.

Mr Findlay said Christchurch Airport had identified in March 2012 the possibility of a direct flight and had considered several airlines before deciding to approach Air New Zealand.

His Perth counterpart made several visits to Auckland for discussions on the project, arriving on a morning flight and returning the same day.

Eventually, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the airports and the airlines - Air New Zealand and its code-share partner Virgin - to advance the talks.

In November last year, a meeting was held in Christchurch of selected tourism and industry leaders to explain the project, which received an overwhelming endorsement.

The South Island ''catchment'' for WA tourists was extended to Wellington to provide a larger number of people who could work on attracting visitors across the Tasman on the direct flight.

''Air New Zealand was positive about what was possible. This was something the South Island believed would be successful. Air New Zealand saw the potential and elevated its level of collaboration.''

The airport company had provided seed money to give Air New Zealand confidence in the flight, supported the familiarisation visit to WA, and hosted sales and regional tourism operators in Perth to help identify the opportunity to ensure the long-term opportunities were realised, he said.

Singapore Airlines had been flying into Christchurch for 27 years, with only practical support from the airport - ''small change''.

Te Anau-based John Robson, the general manager of Southern Discoveries, said 45% of all tourists now coming to New Zealand were from Australia.

Queenstown was a destination in its own right, but the numbers had changed regarding Milford Sound. Formerly, one in three Australian visitors went to Milford Sound. Now, it was one in four.

Travel agencies were engaging with China, India and Indonesia because of the growing wealth in those countries.

''A lot of people have forgotten Australia is our biggest, closest and easiest-to-reach market.''

Mr Robson was supportive of the direct flight as Australians were good repeat business for tour operators.

When former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd paid out $A900 ($NZ980) to taxpayers, New Zealand operators were quick off the mark in encouraging visitors in their 40s and 50s to come to New Zealand.

''We blew them away. When they come the first time they do the `iconic' sites like Milford Sound. But when they have knocked off those, they spread out to Dunedin and the Catlins region. We definitely see that from our own operations in Te Anau.''

Mr Findlay said the idea was to get more people flying into Christchurch and have them spread out into the rest of the South Island.

- Dene Mackenzie travelled to Perth with the assistance of Air New Zealand, Christchurch Airport and Tourism Western Australia.

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