Chatham Islands businesses hope border reopening won't stunt tourism boost

The Chatham Islands. Photo: Getty Images
The Chatham Islands. Photo: Getty Images
With borders closed, more Cantabrians have been ticking the Chatham Islands off their bucket list than before the pandemic.

Air Chathams visitor arrivals were up 80 per cent last year, with just under 2400 visitors recorded, compared to pre-Covid-19 times.

While businesses were pleased with the momentum tourism had gained, they said it was vital it did not cost their remote island lifestyle.

The rugged and remote archipelago sits in the path of the Roaring Forties, roughly 800km east of Christchurch in the Pacific Ocean.

The Chatham Islands have been embracing more growth and development during the pandemic, with new businesses popping up, the airport being upgraded, and mobile coverage finally becoming a reality.

About 14km south of the main island is Pitt Island, where Brent Mallinson and his wife have run the Flowerpot Bay Lodge for more than a decade - mostly solo.

"We just got to the point in the last couple of years, especially with the Covid spike, we just couldn't handle it and we were turning away so much work because we just couldn't do two things at once.

"So for the last two seasons, we've had seasonal workers. It's just too much for a mum and dad business anymore, and it's a great thing. We are really happy with that."

His season started earlier now, running from mid-September and almost rolling into May.

Mallinson had high hopes for tourism on the Chathams.

"I think this year we might be peaking around somewhere between 3000 and 4000. In a normal season, prior to Covid, it was probably more like 2000 visitors a year."

The Chathams received close to $40 million in mid-2020 for projects to improve infrastructure, add to its attraction as a destination, and create jobs.

Tourism Chatham Islands manager Jackie Gurden said there was more awareness and operators pitching for people to visit.

"I guess it's like a double-edged sword. For a lot of the tourism businesses, it has provided them with a much bigger market and a lot more income and a lot more certainty.

"With a lot of people on the islands, tourism can be very much part-time mixed in with farming or fishing as well, so it's given certainty to business and we're certainty seeing people expand into tourism."

But the rapid growth did have drawbacks.

There was pressure on infrastructure, staffing, and housing, she said.

They also had to manage the taking of kaimoana and the impact on their remote island lifestyle, particularly as most of the land was privately owned.

Tourism was effectively capped by accommodation and flights.

"[At] peak time, people couldn't book so what they had to do was go 'okay ... is there availability in May or in other months?' so that's why the shoulders have filled out as well.

"So it is something that's capped. It's not exponential growth at all that can come from tourism."

Work was underway to create events to attract more people over the quieter winter period, including a festival of science this August.

That would help to level out the seasons so it did not have the highs of summer and lows of winter when employment issues cropped up, she said.

Greg Horler from Awarakau Lodge said they were pretty busy before the pandemic, but shoulder seasons were shorter now and they had more back-to-back bookings.

Horler, who was deputy mayor for the Chathams, said community support was key for tourism there.

"The locals need to see a benefit. So for instance, one of our operators that sends groups to us, they give $100 per person that they send to the community swimming pool cup committee, and that helps them to maintain the swimming pool."

He expected demand would drop off once more New Zealanders start heading abroad.

"Talking to people that come here - so some of them are saying 'it's been on our radar, but not immediately', and because they haven't been able to travel overseas, they've actually come. But they've probably come two or three years earlier than what they would have. So they are our future visitors.

"Hopefully we can fill that gap, but maybe not. So I think it will tail off."

It was important to keep tourism in check and give locals a breather, he said.

"Although that will impact on our income. But without the support of the locals, tourism here would be quite hard.

"You need your locals to wave to tourists and say hello to them. You don't really want them turning their backs on them.

"It's about balance and not overdoing it."

With the Chatham Islands firmly on the map as a destination, businesses hoped visitors would continue to explore their remote island home.

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