Christchurch on track for a bumper winter

Christchurch Airport. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
Christchurch Airport. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
Christchurch tourism chiefs are predicting bumper winter and summer seasons as the city re-establishes itself as a key travel destination.

Data shows international visitor numbers are almost back to pre-pandemic levels and tourists are staying longer and spending more, signalling the city is no longer just a gateway to the rest of the South Island.

Justin Watson. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
Justin Watson. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
Christchurch Airport chief executive Justin Watson said overall international capacity had bounced back to 75 percent of 2019 levels, while Tasman and Pacific Islands routes would operate at more than 80 percent over winter.

He said direct United Airlines flights between San Francisco and Christchurch from December would super-charge the southern market favoured by Americans.

"A lot of them, about 40 million or so, have New Zealand on their bucket list," he said.

"As the world reopens, with conflict in Europe and geopolitical things going on, New Zealand is seen as an attractive, safe destination," he said.

Watson said United's four-month seasonal service was likely to be worth $44 million in visitor spending for New Zealand, $32 million of which could benefit the South Island.

Emirates restarted daily flights from Dubai to Christchurch in March, while Singapore Airlines planned to launch three extra Christchurch flights a week from November.

After the turbulence of the pandemic, the Christchurch Airport-owned Novotel hotel has become a plane-spotters' paradise, with panoramic views of the runway and Southern Alps from the sixth-floor restaurant and bar.

James Wilson. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
James Wilson. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
Hotel manager James Wilson said guests particularly enjoyed watching the double-decker Airbus A-380 touching down.

"It's live action, planes coming and going, you can see everything from here. It's just magical, sunrise through to sunset."

Almost a year after reopening to the public, the former MIQ hotel had occupancy rates of between 60 and 70 per cent, Wilson said.

"I think we'll continue around that 60, 70 percent through winter, which is actually pretty good for a winter period - it's a tough market," he said.

"Leading into summer we should be hitting 80 percent. We're getting that demand back."

Wilson said the hotel attracted business people who wanted to stay and work in a conference setting with easy access to the city and the airport, while tourists sought a convenient place to start or end their trip.

ChristchurchNZ's destination and attraction manager Loren Heaphy said the city's international visitor market was worth about $1.7 billion a year before the 2011 earthquake.

"We've just reached the $1 billion threshold so we're not back at our pre-quake levels at this point in time, but we feel really confident in the next few years because of the investment in infrastructure and the visitor economy that we'll finally reach that number."

Heaphy said visitor stays had grown from an average of 1.6 nights before the pandemic to 1.8 nights.

"We have a goal by 2030 that we will be at 2.2 visitor nights average length of stay and that will be about $1 billion extra spend in the city in a year," she said.

"We really need to position ourselves as a destination and not just a gateway."

The economic development agency recorded an average of 13,000 daily international visitors to the city in April, just shy of the 14,000 who came in April 2019.

The Christchurch Airport-owned Novotel hotel. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
The Christchurch Airport-owned Novotel hotel. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon
They spent $28 million, $7 million more than was spent in the same month in 2019.

Heaphy said the Te Pae convention centre would draw even more business travellers to the city over winter, while Australians hit the slopes.

"Australians are back and ready to ski. If the ski season is good we'll see a strong winter, but if the snow isn't so good the city benefits as well because when people can't go up the mountain, they come shopping and spend in the central business district."

Riverside market, the Christchurch Adventure Park and New Brighton's He Puna Taimoana hot pools were especially appealing to visitors, while last month's TRENZ tourism showcase brought promises of lengthened city itineraries, Heaphy said.

Even greater numbers of cruise ships were also expected next season, following the opening of Lyttelton's new $67 million berth last year.

While extra Christchurch flights were a boon for summer tourism, airport chief executive Justin Watson said global staff shortages and trimmed schedules meant a full international airline rebound could still take up to 18 months.

"So long as we can get the air capacity back in place, we expect to see a strong summer. Will it be back at pre-Covid levels?

"Probably not this summer, we've probably got another year to 18 months before we get back to that."