Glacier towns struggling

One businessman says tourists have not been making the journey south from Hokitika to visit Franz...
One businessman says tourists have not been making the journey south from Hokitika to visit Franz Josef Glacier. PHOTO: LAURA SMITH
While days of cloudy skies had kept tourists from visiting the Franz Josef Glacier, Monday...
While days of cloudy skies had kept tourists from visiting the Franz Josef Glacier, Monday morning offered a brief window for helicopter trips. PHOTO: LAURA SMITH
Franz Josef businessmen (from left) Logan Skinner, Adam Haugh, Billy Whiteman, Chris Roy and Ian...
Franz Josef businessmen (from left) Logan Skinner, Adam Haugh, Billy Whiteman, Chris Roy and Ian Hartshorne are concerned about the town’s almost total loss of tourism. PHOTOS: HELEN MURDOCH
Empty roads on the West Coast
Empty roads on the West Coast
Business owners Jamie Caldwell and Gig Raksamart say any government support should be as much...
Business owners Jamie Caldwell and Gig Raksamart say any government support should be as much about sustaining the community as industry.
The loss of international tourism is pushing the West Coast’s twin glacier towns to the brink. Empty cafe tables, a slew of motel vacancy signs, a highway bare of 
travellers and the sky devoid of glacier-bound helicopters. Welcome to Franz Josef’s devastating new normal.  Helen Murdoch, of the Greymouth Star,  reports. 

 

Until the borders shut in the face of a global pandemic, international tourists had accounted for up to 90% of the income of Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.

But in a survey of 10 Franz businesses earlier this month, eight said turnover had fallen by 81%-90% between November 2018 and November 2020.

Most said they would close in the next few months if no outside financial support was forthcoming.

The South Westland tourism industry stuttered after severe weather washed away the Waiho (Waiau) River bridge in March 2019, and then destroyed the highway over Mt Hercules the following December.

It was just starting to recover from those weeks-long closures, when Covid-19 struck and it was then gutted by lockdowns and the border shutdown.

Despite Franz businesses slashing rates to entice domestic tourists, few travellers have been making the 134km trip from Hokitika — apparently just a little too far for weekend trippers from Canterbury.

Snakebite Brewery and Restaurant director, and Alpine Glacier Motel manager Mark Gibson said tourists were not travelling south of Hokitika, where some businesses were reporting their biggest season ever.

Even hopes of a Christmas-New Year blip would do little to replace the five-month summer season through to March, when occupancy ran at 98%.

"If we don’t have a season, we are gone," Mr Gibson said.

The town’s business survey has been given to Hospitality New Zealand in the hope it could lobby the Government for some assistance.

The losses are severe and few businesses have the resources to stave off closure.

Owners are using savings and loans to pay fixed costs like rents, leases, taxes and rates, while price cuts to gain any domestic tourism income make for lean takings.

The loss of jobs and incomes means those who can are leaving town, demand is falling for tradesmen and services and the school is in decline, the Franz businessmen said.

The population has fallen to between 350-400 — down from 1000 permanent and temporary New Zealand and international residents.

Snakebite co-owner Billy Whiteman said the town’s social structure was changing and people were moving away as jobs were lost.

"The social infrastructure is being whittled away. It will become a ghost town."

Bella Vista Motel owner-operator Adam Haugh said stress levels were high and business members were keeping an eye on the most vulnerable.

Local businessman and Westland District councillor Ian Hartshorne said while major businesses had received Covid-19 payouts, there had been no thought or subsidies for small business owners.

Advice that Franz Josef tourism operators adapt to the change was unsound and too late, given the decades spent turning Franz Josef into an international tourist destination, he said.

"We can not create a market that does not exist — this is a disaster."

Mr Haugh said the Government had to decide if it wanted to maintain the town’s business assets for when international tourism returned — or let them fall over.

"If international tourism is not going to recover we have to know, so we can close our businesses down. If we need to keep going, we need help to survive."

Coaster and National Party list MP Maureen Pugh said the glacier businesses needed surety about the future so they could make proper decisions about their business future, "rather than having this travel bubble carrot dangling".

"These guys need some solid information so they can decide if they close, or keep a skeleton staff."

Mrs Pugh said there had been a "lolly scramble" of funding available, but she was not aware of anything else proposed by the Government.

The planned return of the $68million wage subsidy wrongly claimed by The Warehouse could be redistributed to desperate international tourist towns such as Franz Josef, she said.

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor said Franz Josef and Fox Glacier were not the only towns dependent on international tourists.

But the businesses that made changes, and communities that attracted domestic tourists, were surviving.

The Government hoped a transtasman travel bubble would, one day, be a reality, Mr O’Connor said.

"The world is chaotic and I am mindful of the challenges tourism businesses have. But at the end of the day, the businesses have to make their own decisions."

South Westland Emergency Relief Fund representative Kimmy Nolan has been working on bringing people together and helping them navigate community agencies.

"These communities are hugely resilient, so when someone comes to us we know their need is great," Ms Nolan said.

"When the second lot of wage subsidies kicked in we thought it [Covid-19] would only be for weeks or months — the reality is it could be for months or years.

"We are very aware of what we can do and people know they can reach out to us."

She said Franz Josef had been fully-focused on international tourism.

"But I’m more concerned for Fox Glacier, which struggled with the loss of glacier access prior to Covid-19.

"Franz Josef is struggling, but Fox Glacier is barely breathing," Ms Nolan said.

Jamie Caldwell and Gig Raksamart own The Landing bar and cafe, King Tiger Asian restaurant and Full of Beans Cafe in Franz.

They closed King Tiger when Covid-19 hit and are now considering how to keep the other two businesses over winter on possible earnings from a very short summer holiday period.

Their 100 staff have been slashed to 16 and their earnings are down by 80%.

They also said the domestic tourism boom experienced elsewhere on the West Coast had not reached Franz Josef, and the town’s industry would fold once businesses closed.

"Even if we do get a survival package from the Government, will Fox Glacier and Franz Josef return to what they were?

"This isn’t just about sustaining the businesses — this is about sustaining communities."

Heli Services NZ Franz Josef base manager Quentin Arnold said the transtasman bubble was essential for survival.

"What Kiwis have done we are very thankful for. It has put survival on the table. But how long can that go on for?

"The last month has been the worst as far as numbers go. There were only so many Kiwis prepared to spend money on travel coming into Christmas."

Mr Arnold said he believed New Zealand would come out of the pandemic pretty well, "but I suspect the worst is yet to come".

Comments

Franz exists solely for tourism and I guess when you pile your eggs into one basket...
The huge amount of money extracted from visitors to these places reminds me of mining booms that funnel the real money out of the region leaving the communities very little, especially in troubling times such as these. Time for a reset...

 

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