'The party is over': Queenstown is not OK

We need to talk about Queenstown, writes chef and restaurateur Darren Lovell. Photo: supplied
We need to talk about Queenstown, writes chef and restaurateur Darren Lovell. Photo: supplied
OPINION: There's a bloody big elephant stampeding through the streets of Queenstown and no one, it seems, can see it.

And if someone doesn’t do something soon, that bloody big elephant is going to smash our streets to smithereens.

Our elephant, the one thing no one seems to be talking about, is that we are a tourist town with no tourists.

How does that work, folks?

Guess what? It doesn’t.

We can pretend all we like how great the school holidays were, how fantastic marathon weekend was, and yes, I’m told, hang on in there, a travel bubble to Australia will be with us soon.

‘‘Things are on the improve,’’ writes my landlord, responding to my email explaining why I can’t pay the full amount of rent owing for the sixth month straight.

‘‘There’s a vaccine coming.’’

I scream. I cry.

Doesn’t anyone get it?

We need the vaccine now.

We need our borders open now.

We need tourists now.

Without them I do not have a profitable business.

Hands up if the same thing applies to you?

I bet, without asking, it does at Canyon Swing, and KJet, and NZONE, Eichardt’s – and on, and on.

Day-by-day, week-by-week, this town is dying, and no one, it seems, wants to talk about it.

They certainly don’t in Wellington, where they’re too busy patting themselves on the back at how well the country’s doing, how the price of an average home is soaring, how unemployment is nowhere near as bad as they thought it was going to be.

Meanwhile, tourist towns across the country are crashing like the All Blacks against the Pumas — no one saw that coming either.

The Government has been advised allowing bed taxes by the Productivity Commission. Photo: Getty...
Queenstown is suffering in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic. Photo: Getty Images/File
The hard-working shopkeepers and hoteliers and adventure tour operators in Te Anau will be dreading this summer, knowing the buses carrying tourists from around the world to visit Milford Sound will not be pulling up for a sandwich and cuppa in their town.

The usual swag of Kiwi trampers will still use the town as a launching pad to explore Fiordland National Park, but, trust me, New Zealand tourists do not pay the rent.

There are not enough Kiwi tourists to sustain NZ – our population is smaller than Sydney’s!

How are the souvenir shops surviving with no tourists?

Does anyone ask them?

Does anyone care?

I do.

We all should.

Who buys one of those cute Global Culture t-shirts featuring a Kiwi in jandals barbecuing a snag?

Aucklanders?

Notice there is no line at Fergburger?

As a business owner in this town for the past 15 years — and a successful one at that — I use the Fergburger queue as a barometer to tell me how busy town is.

When the line of burger lovers is past The London, it’s time to add more staff to the roster.

Well, if there’s no queue, this is not a cause for celebration, it’s cause for concern.

Be worried that you can now find a park, please.

Did anyone go into town the other Sunday?

Of course you didn’t.  No one did.  Town was dead.  It was our quietest day ever.

Remember how vibrant it all was?

How our streets swelled with people from around the world; how we laughed at the tourists in line for a milkshake from Cookie Time, despite the loud blaring pop music; how we drove around, seemingly hour after hour looking for a park.

How we soaked it all up, revelling in the idea of how we could live somewhere so beautiful and yet so energetic and cosmopolitan.

Every day felt like the weekend, every day was a party.

Well, the party is over and it’s Monday.

There’s a long week ahead before we see a weekend again.

As our mayor hinted on these very pages a few weeks ago, having no international visitors is not sustainable.

There’s a storm coming and no one, unless, like me, you own a business that relies on overseas visitors, can see it.

Someone I know who manages a retail store in Beach Street was telling me he had to film the empty streets recently so he could show his overlords in Auckland why his sales figures were so poor.

This time last year, Fishbone, the restaurant I have owned since 2006, was gearing up for summer.

We employed 18 staff.

Exactly 75% of our customers came from somewhere other than New Zealand.

On a summer’s night you couldn’t get a table without a reservation — heck, you couldn’t get a table anywhere in town without a reservation.

Now Fishbone is gone.

The crayfish tank I imported from Australia a decade ago sits empty in the back of what now is Love Chicken — The Pop UP and 18 Fishbone staff are reduced to four.

I popped up Love Chicken because I felt it had a better chance of survival than Fishbone.

I don’t regret the move; Love Chicken requires fewer staff.

But that’s 14 fewer people from just one business who aren’t going out on a weeknight to Cowboys or Little Blackwood or any of the other bars and restaurants in town.

Fourteen young people not renting rooms, shopping at FreshChoice or going
to the movies.

Fourteen people not spending money at Devil Burger.

We’re a town with no tourists, our population is shrinking and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

I know we can’t open our borders anytime soon; I know that a travel bubble with Australia is still a way off; I know there aren’t any instant solutions but, please, can we all stop pretending that everything is OK?

We need to talk about Queenstown.

Everything is not OK.

Darren Lovell’s a long-time Queenstown chef and owner of Fishbone and Love Chicken

ed@scene.co.nz

 

Comments

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Tourism will take years to come back to past levels , this shows a lack of foresight in the planning of NZ future, we should be looking at making NZ a Green Industrial Hub for manufacturing and food production, start with cheap green energy (hydro) at cost plus maintenance to be accessed by industry from around the world if they setup in NZ . They must become a registered NZ company to access the power, get rid of all the power supply companies and have just one. We are too small for all these ticket clippers..

I think that everyone understands and I personally feel for you. Many people are hurting. Do you have suggestions or just want to air your thoughts? You seem to be making the best of a bad situation.

Queenstown was built on a boom that went on for decades, but it was never sustainable.
It operated without provision for worker housing, it operated with high living costs, it operated on the backs of exploited foreign workers, and it operated without making any provision for global catastrophes such as the current pandemic.
Tourism has always promoted its gross income, without ever accounting for all the hidden costs that it has shovelled onto the taxpayers. Global tourism is an environmental disaster and that is the real elephant crashing through Queenstown's streets. The world is better off without Global mass Tourism, and I suspect that the economy is not taking the hit the industry claims. Sure, individual businesses that have been run in unsustainable ways and without provision for the inevitable bad times are suffering, but that is their own fault.
Vaccines are not the answer to this virus and we need to start asking the question about whether we want tourism to return as it was. Allowing the market to dictate the outcome will involve a massive restructure in Queenstown, and it will also make the town accessible to Kiwis again. Personally I don't see that as a problem.

I guess the other elephant in the story is the entitled people in New Zealand that think only of their own plight within their own places of operation.
Many , many NZers are struggling to make ends meet in sectors that are not reliant on tourists. Queenstown put its eggs in the one basket , 'lets cater and price for overseas people'. NZ tourists will have to pay the inflated prices and learn to read retail signs in many different languages.
Like many people, we wanted to support NZ businesses/places to visit. Like many we chose those real places in the country who don't over inflate prices and have always welcomed locals.
The lesson for Queenstown , 'if you put all your eggs in one basket and they break don't cry foul when all the eggs are gone.'

As a "local" NZ tourist I find that central Queenstown has a problem - it only caters to foreign tourists.

I was down last week and spent time in Arrowtown, Cromwell, Wanaka, and Frankton, even at a fresh foods place in Gorge Road ... all good places that have sites, services and offerings for local NZers.

But was I interested in going into Queenstown itself? No. Not based on previous visits. My impression was the whole place is a kitschy, over priced tourist trap.

Queenstown council and the owners need to realise that international tourism is 2-3 years away (at best) and maybe 5- 10 years (at worst) so the CBD must reinvigorate themselves to cater to local tastes ...

That might mean that the "gold rush" has gone - the good old boom days are past - but Queenstown does have enough traffic to be a vibrant holiday spot in both summer and winter if it adjusts to a new reality that NZers will be the majority of visitors.

And preferably Queenstown will stay that way when international tourists come back - because THAT is what tourists have travelled to see.

The vaccine will only bring new problems, not necessarily solve the need for isolation or quarantine. Will the vaccine stop people carrying the virus and being contagious? There hasn’t been a chance yet to investigate this yet as long term trials haven’t been done. Imagine letting vaccinated people skip the isolation step but finding them still contagious

2019: "overtourism is killing our beautiful country!"
Same people 2020: "we are starving! bring back the tourists even if it means covid!"

If Queenstown economy ever had a chance to become more diverse and sustainable then it is now.

It appears to me that the real elephant in the room is what you didn't say. What do you propose we, taxpayers presumably, do about it? It's very hard to accept the idea that a city swimming in money for decades on end, pricing kiwis out, and exploiting travelling workers, now wants a hand out? Or a COVID-19 pandemic in return for profit again? Newsflash. They wont come even if we do open the boarder. Maybe for a week or two, until our COVID-19 numbers are like the rest of the world's.

Maybe the real elephant is the self insurance you didn't put aside, recognising that if it's too good, it won't last. Guess what. Your rainy day has arrived.

It's tough being self employed but unfortunately even some of the world's best entrepreneurs have failed. As they say, S*** Happens! And the s*** that is happening at the moment is the damage humans are inflicting on the natural world. The world is in an “era of pandemics” and unless the destruction of the natural world is halted they will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before, according to a report from some of the world’s leading scientists.
Until we address and find solutions for the global environmental crisis, more s*** is going to happen and it is going to get a lot bigger and a lot more messy!

Darren - a wonderfully written, heartfelt, painful & hard to read post. Thank you.

I recall Jim Boult about Feb writing Q/town went from the richest to the poorest NZ District within two months or so as Covid hit.

Since then I've read of *huge* amounts of $, & QLDC, business, social agencies' & individuals' efforts to at least plug the hole. So organisations & people *are* trying to do their best, in circumstances last seen 1918/19 Flu Pandemic.

But no, Queenstown's still not right - The Sick Man of NZ Tourism, equaled only by perhaps (among tourist towns) Rotorua:(

So, what to do now: it is what it is, eggs one basket & all...? - your thoughts in another Opinion Piece...?

Take care Man.

Bill (Alexandra)

With every business comes a level of risk. No revenue stream is guaranteed, if it was we would have businesses that have lasted thousands of years. Nothing is forever.

Strangely enough, Queenstown existed without international tourism for a long time. Those who lived here a long while ago when there was minimal international tourism remember a different, more rural town with a completely different charm than now.

There are a lot, a majority, of businesses in this town who have placed bets on a constant stream of international tourism, of rich overseas guests who pump and dump cash into the local economy. Visitors who statistically come once, do what they can and then leave with a 'Queenstown is beautiful, but too expensive/busy for me' and never come back.

Now is a great time for Queenstown to reinvent itself as there is no clear path ahead. This is an opportunity to shift from a tourism based model to something else. How about we focus on businesses that have survived/thrived in this crisis, and see what they are doing? I know they are out there as I run one myself.

Hey Darren. In a pandemic, it's all about the magic words, flexibility, resilience, sharing, caring, and optimism. Heaps of Maori words too. Can mean we each be different, find new friends, be careful, and be happy 😁

My wife and i are from near Los Angeles. We miss Queenstown terribly. The day the border opens we'll be back, and I'm sure a lot of us feel that way. We also love Fishbone when were in town :)

I agree with PJK, GIR, Grizz...all of the above. I learned to ski in Queenstown in the 70's, rowed in regattas on Lake Hayes into the 80's, spent the 90's working and living in tourism in QT. The writing was on the wall when Wazza decided the long term plan for QLDC and it involved tourism, tourism, tourism... the more money from offshore, the better. I thought another major conflict would shut the place down...or a super-flu. Haven't visited it for 15 years now because of the flavourless, plastic taste that pervades it.

Shoulda kept "Fishbone Bar and Grill" and just cut down on the menu. Everyone knew about Fishbone, it was an already well advertised label all over NZ and the world. Now Mr Chef changed it to "Love Chicken"!!!! Good luck sir, but I would have preferred one of those fishbone fishburgers and a side of squid rings with plum sauce. Remember, Fishbone was the local hangout for fresh seafood in the 90's and in those days locals supported it. Put a good quality out and it will be appreciated. Good luck.

My heart goes out to you, having built a business on an industry which has been kneecapped through no fault of your own. While the scenery is breathtaking, Queenstown township appeared fake and superficial. Few Swiss alpine towns are single sector places and have manufacturing, agriculture, education, health resorts, finance, internet businesses and other industries to sustain them. This downturn has shown tourism is the emperor with no clothes.

All kiwis are hurting, or about to start hurting (unless they are politicians on big secure salaries in Wellington). The world has changed. Think about that. The world has changed. We all need to use the breathing space we have to reinvent our relevance to the international marketplace. People sitting around wishing it hadn’t are choosing to become irrelevant.

Yes they do need to talk. Queenstown has not been 'OK' well before any pandemic hit and people have been relocating elsewhere since well over 10 years ago. Once a cool little town with a good balance of Kiwi and International Residents who could afford to live and visit there to now All Flash with no Cash nor people. Time for a plan.

You are perfectly entitled to feel aggrieved at this whole mess - best described as "planicdemic". The fear-ridden response to the now well discredited Imperial College covid-19 mortality projections has cost hard working people their investments and not saved a single life as we will see.

The reality of this virus and the panic stricken response to it is best summed up by the scientists, such as Ivor Cummins, Anders Tegnell and many, many others who are ignored by the mainstream media..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3vDsKEOIQI&t=60s

It is a real shame that main stream media choose to spread FUD rather than examine the science closely.
You are quite right to feel angry - and there will not be an effective virus no matter what you are told. Go check the SCIENCE!

Moreover, even the latest data shows how idiotic the lock down regime has been.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m121hAiREvc

Sadly currently there are two many tourist related businesses for the market. A lot more will most likely close or perhaps go into hibernation as the lack of tourists take its toll.

Not ideal but innovative business owners should be able to start again if on a smaller scale. The Covid induced slowdown is also a great chance for the industry and Govt to consider how we want tourism to work in the future.

Queenstown will be back to its old self just as soon as they open the border with Australia. The problem is no one knows when that will be but it looks like the summer is out so it probably won't be until the winter that things start to get normal and by that time many businesses will be gone.

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