'The party is over': Queenstown is not OK

We need to talk about Queenstown' writes chef and restaurateur Darren Lovell
We need to talk about Queenstown' writes chef and restaurateur Darren Lovell
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

 

 

 

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