Surviving tourism drop reveals fresh option

The Covid experience has amplified Queenstown’s overexposure to tourism. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The Covid experience has amplified Queenstown’s overexposure to tourism. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Would Queenstown’s economy collapse without an airport? asks John Hilhorst.

Thirty years ago, it seemed everyone in Queenstown wore polar fleece. With little economic activity beyond "adventure tourism", there were few salaried positions. If residents aspired to live in the district permanently, they needed to start businesses or have independent means. The airport’s intimate proximity to deliver customers to an adrenaline-pumping range of single-use tourism experiences was, at that time, integral to most local livelihoods.

But times have changed, and the need for an airport within 15 minutes — rather than one hour — is no longer essential for the Queenstown economy.

Population growth has seen significant maturing of its community. A range of new attractions enjoy repeated, regular use by visitors who stay longer and frequently return, including golf, wineries, sport, events, cycling, concerts, and the arts. And a host of professional service businesses provide stable incomes.

Covid has highlighted this change. Its economic impact on Queenstown has been less than anticipated despite the pain it has inflicted on businesses in the tourism sector.

The May 2020 Infometrics economic assessment commissioned by QLDC at the beginning of Covid painted a stark future that largely did not materialise. That report anticipated a 23.3% economic contraction and employment shrinking by 7900, with more than a quarter of all jobs lost. However, the drop in GDP for the year ending March 2021 was 11.2%, less than half what was anticipated. Employment dropped 8.5%, three times less than expected. While significant, these reverses undid the growth of only the previous two years.

The number of students enrolled in the district’s schools increased, as did the number of registered businesses. Rather than losing residents, net positive internal migration had the district’s population growing four times faster than the New Zealand average.

The broader community and economy weathered the year despite the airport’s closures.

During the second year of Covid Queenstown Lakes District’s GDP rose 8.3% by the end of the third quarter, still behind where it was in FY2020, but not by much. Many in the hospitality industry continue to suffer, but the local economy and communities have proved amazingly resilient.

This Covid experience proves wrong the long-held conviction that Queenstown Airport must forever remain within 15 minutes of the resort’s hotels. It shows Queenstown’s economy will not collapse if we relocate airline flights to a new airport near Tarras.

Quite the opposite, the Covid experience has amplified Queenstown’s overexposure to tourism and, therefore, the need to reduce risk by diversifying. Businesses promoting single-use visitor experiences are the most vulnerable. These include many old classics, such as bus trips to Milford, the Earnslaw, and jet-boat rides.

Calls for an economic reset prompted by Covid were not anti-tourism. Visitors will always be welcome and vital to the region’s economy and identity. But it’s time to reassess the priorities. Maximising tourism’s convenience of air travel must balance against the needs of higher-paying knowledge enterprises.

Prioritising the first would keep Queenstown Airport in the middle of Frankton. This fuels high-volume, low-cost, low-value, short-term visits that accelerate the expansion of tourism and single-use visitor attractions.

Prioritising the second requires the development of a metropolitan centre with the character and substance needed by knowledge enterprises to flourish.

This potential is readily achievable on Frankton Flats. Frankton sits at the centre of the Wakatipu’s transport network and already has a ring road protecting its centre. It has a perimeter of city facilities and offers a blank canvas in a stunning geographic environment to plan one of the world’s most attractive high-density, mixed-use, urban campuses.

It’s at least a decade before airline flights could be transferred to a new regional airport near Tarras. So, there is no threat to current business and plenty of time to adapt in the medium term.

CIAL’s proposal gives Queenstown a real chance to shape its future. Will it remain stuck in its old mindset or explore a more prosperous and sustainable future for our tamariki and mokopuna?

 - John Hilhorst is a member of FlightPlan2050, a group promoting the urbanisation of Frankton enabled by the relocation of airline flights.

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