Recovery chance to carve out identity

The Glenorchy boathouse and the historic wharf. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The Glenorchy boathouse and the historic wharf. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
These days known as a must-see for Lord of the Rings pilgrims, Glenorchy’s scenic views have drawn tourists to the area since the mid-1800s. However, in many ways, the township has been an extension of the Queenstown brand. Business owners are now suggesting it could become a destination in its own right, after Covid-19. Matthew McKew reports.
 

Stunning views set the scene on the drive out to Glenorchy from Queenstown, but the remote township now faces a long road to recovery.

Once the place to be for gold, scheelite mining and wool, Glenorchy has become more synonymous with adventure and Tolkien’s Middle Earth in recent decades.

But when Covid-19 struck, the tourism market dried up and one of the main attractions, Dart River Adventures shut up shop.

 

Ngai Tahu Tourism has no planned date to reopen the mothballed business and the staff have been laid off — unlike its sister Shotover Jet in Queenstown.

Bold Peak Lodge owner Karl Green refuses to be downbeat after Covid-19, saying locals have gone...
Bold Peak Lodge owner Karl Green refuses to be downbeat after Covid-19, saying locals have gone out of their way to support his cafe and bar business.
The effects are felt everywhere, not least at Bold Peak Lodge, which owner Karl Green said relied on the passing traffic.

"Dart River closing was really huge for us, quite a kick in the guts for a lot of people in the community.

"It has definitely impacted our business and it will ... as long as they are closed."

For Mr Green, Covid-19 might be a challenge but it was one he remained optimistic he could overcome.

"I think there was a big overreaction.

Obviously, every company is different, but Kiwis want to travel and there’s still a lot of international travellers in New Zealand that have stayed during lockdown.

"I think far from the knee-jerk reaction, we can adapt and change, whether we change our prices or change our trips, or we change who we are marketing to and what we are doing."

He had kept his staff on through a mixture of the wage subsidy, reduced hours and a personal pay cut.

If the border closure was to extend into summer next year though, Mr Green admitted things would get "interesting".

He would like to see the Government provide funding for a shared marketing platform aimed solely at Glenorchy.

"There are actually lots of activities people can do in Glenorchy: horse riding, helicopter flights, lots of beautiful walks you can do for a day or multiple days, there’s a fishing charter company as well.

"Golf, tennis ... once people get here, I think they realise it is not just a small town in the middle of nowhere."

British workers living in Queenstown (from left) Abbie Smith, John Lihou and Keri Paliczka, with...
British workers living in Queenstown (from left) Abbie Smith, John Lihou and Keri Paliczka, with High Country Horses senior trek guide Shaun Hatton. The former Skyline workers take advantage of discounts and their new-found free time.

The vision is shared with High Country Horses owner Deana Insley, also of Glenorchy.

She believed recovery from the pandemic was an opportunity to market the township as a destination in its own right, not just a day trip during a Queenstown holiday.

"If we could actually get to the point where people are spending a week here, doing two or three activities, eating here and actually using the accommodation, this place won’t die."

She said making Glenorchy a destination had been a key aim of her business before Covid-19 and she had had some success.

A five-day trek through the Rees Valley around Mount Alfred had sold out and continued to sell in advance for next season.

The venture had not just benefited Mrs Insley, but also those she partnered with for catering and accommodation.

When lockdown hit, Mrs Insley made a tough decision to axe more than half of her workforce.

Those retained were offered free accommodation at the farm and faced some long shifts.

"We had just a hundred horses here and when the Government announced lockdown was going to be in four days time, we had to get 400 shoes off their feet, we had to get their dentistry done, we had to get their worming done.

"We don’t just park them up— they have to be maintained."

The business was not just hit with cancellations, but was owed money by tourism wholesalers and agents.

High Country Horses owner Deana Insley wants Glenorchy to become a destination in its own right...
High Country Horses owner Deana Insley wants Glenorchy to become a destination in its own right after Covid-19.

High Country Horses was not the only firm which had been caught out — businesses across Wakatipu were owed more than $1million.

The wholesalers had taken customers’ money for tourism activities and were supposed to pass on payment to operators, but withheld funds when the pandemic struck.

Mrs Insley hoped to have solved the issue post-Covid-19, taking advantage of market conditions to get tough with booking agents.

"If a person goes into an information centre, they can offer them a 10% discount, the booking agent will only take 10% commission, which is a deposit, then we collect the rest of the funds here on the farm, on arrival.

"That way we have no money sitting in anyone else’s bank account."

Domestic tourism may be picking up the slack in some areas, but high-ticket ventures such as Heli Glenorchy just cannot survive without international visitors.

Co-owner Nick Nicholson said about 50%-60% of its business was tourism-based, and other work came from assisting farmers, Fire and Emergency NZ, search and rescue, fishing and hunting, and Department of Conservation work.

Without the commercial work, he said, the firm "probably wouldn’t be operating anymore".

To put things bluntly, the company had seen as many tourists since lockdown as it normally would in one day.

Heli Glenorchy is feeling the pinch of closed borders. Back left: Dee Robinson, Nick Nicholson,...
Heli Glenorchy is feeling the pinch of closed borders. Back left: Dee Robinson, Nick Nicholson, Sonya Porteous. Front left: Phil Casey, Wadaru Kobayashi, Brylee Percy. PHOTOS: MATTHEW MCKEW

Fellow co-owner Dee Robinson said the company’s hands were tied, as it simply could not join in with the discounts being offered across the country.

"We have never priced our business for international tourists, we’ve priced it based on running helicopters."

Both owners feared losing their skilled workers, especially as Kiwi pilots were in high demand, Ms Robinson said.

"We are going to lose decades of skill and training that won’t come back."

The company was being used by the Department of Conservation to assist with efforts to rebuild walking tracks, including the Routeburn which was damaged by flooding earlier this year.

Mr Nicholson said support was needed from the Government, not just for the sake of Heli Glenorchy as a business, but also its ability to provide assistance to the community.

"It [would] keep a low-level operation going, keep our staff employed, continue to provide the service we do in the community up here."

matthew.mckew@odt.co.nz

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