The Dunedin Chinese Garden could be in for a shake-up as
visitor numbers continue to decline, leaving ratepayers to
foot more of the bill.
Figures released to the Otago Daily Times yesterday
showed the number of visitors has plummeted since the garden
opened four years ago, from 83,000 in the first year to just
28,000 in the 2011-12 year.
The decline had contributed to annual budget shortfalls that
have together cost ratepayers $1.02 million, due to a council
agreement to cover operating costs unable to be met by the
Garden manager Margo Reid said the drop-off in visitors
reflected tough economic conditions, a decline in tourism and
the closure of the nearby Otago Settlers Museum, among other
However, she and garden staff were "working really hard" to
trim operating costs, which were budgeted to drop more than
$100,000 in the 2012-13 year.
Despite that, other costs were rising and the garden expected
to record another loss, of $585,000, in the coming year, she
That followed a $180,000 loss recorded in the 2011-12 year,
even after staff costs, fresh water consumption and other
expenditure were trimmed, she said.
Asked yesterday if the garden could eventually cover its
costs, Ms Reid said that would be "crystal ball-gazing".
"It would be wrong of us to start making claims like that at
this time," she said.
Instead, councillors would be asked to consider changes to
the way the facility was run that could improve the financial
results, she said.
A report expected to be presented to the council's next
community development committee meeting would discuss
options, including a possible merger with the Otago Settlers
Museum, to cut costs, she confirmed.
The document was a long-awaited response to a report in
February last year, which had prompted councillors to ask for
an investigation into improving the garden's financial
Ms Reid would not divulge further details of the latest
report until councillors had seen it, but said other
initiatives to boost returns were included.
Committee chairman Cr Bill Acklin told the ODT the garden's
initial budgets had proven to be a "stab in the dark", but
had since been adjusted to more "realistic" levels.
However, Cr Acklin said it was always expected the garden
would not make a profit, although he refused to describe that
as a loss.
"It can't be seen as a loss. This was never going to make a
profit," he said.
Cr Acklin believed the garden remained a good deal for
Dunedin, helping promote the city and solidify sister city
relations with Shanghai.
It should be compared with the Dunedin Botanic Garden, which
cost the council much more each year to run, he said.
"The ratepayers' contribution is what we do, as a city, to
have these sorts of things," he said.
Plans for the traditional scholars' garden were first
announced by Dunedin historian Dr Jim Ng in 2007, as a gift
from the Chinese community to the city.
The Dunedin Chinese Garden Trust was formed the following
year to develop the idea, headed by city councillor, and
later mayor, Peter Chin.
The trust secured funding needed to build the $7.7 million
garden from the Government, Community Trust of Otago (now
Otago Community Trust) and the Chinese community, as well as
The council agreed to contribute $1 million and land on which
to build the garden, as well as agreeing to cover operating
Estimates of what those operating costs would end up costing
the council varied as the project was debated, ranging from
$160,000 a year to $500,000 a year.
The garden was prefabricated in Shanghai, then shipped to
Dunedin and constructed by workers from Shanghai. It opened
in July 2008.
It has earned awards and plaudits since, and despite the
financial difficulties, Cr Acklin believed it was in a good
position to capitalise on extra foot traffic generated by
changes planned or under way in the vicinity.
That included reopening the Otago Settlers Museum late this
year, the redevelopment of the former Dunedin Prison and
warehouse precinct, and proposed changes to the one-way
"The Chinese Garden is right in the middle of it," he said.
Ms Reid said some savings had been found by trimming staff
costs, scrapping Wednesday night openings during winter, and
reducing fresh water consumption in the garden's pond.
However, maintenance costs had been "higher than expected"
and council internal charges had also increased, she said.
Any further moves to boost revenue would also need to tread a
"fine line" to protect the authenticity of the garden, she
However, it had already enjoyed some success. There had been
13,841 repeat visits since opening day and the community and
school holiday events, together with weddings and the
garden's gift shop were providing popular.
Delegations from China had also visited the garden, but
claims it would provide a Chinese tourism boost for Dunedin
had proved unfounded, with "very minimal" numbers of Chinese
tourists visiting, she said.
"They are very polite, but they say 'we can see all this at
home'," she said.