WOMAD music festival cancelled for first time due to COVID-19 concerns

The crowd at the Bowl Stage, WOMAD 2020.
The crowd at the Bowl Stage, WOMAD 2020. Photo credit: Isabella Brown for RNZ

By Harry Lock for RNZ

The New Plymouth-based music festival WOMAD has been cancelled for the first time in its 16-year history.

Long-term local organiser - the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (TAFT) -pulled out last month.

The trust said it risked losing millions of dollars and being declared bankrupt if the March 2021 event had to be cancelled last-minute due to a COVID-19 lockdown.

WOMAD UK, which oversees the event internationally, said at the time it would push on with plans to hold the festival.

But on Friday director Chris Smith announced that was no longer possible.

"WOMAD received numerous enquiries from NZ companies wanting to produce the festival with us in New Plymouth or elsewhere in New Zealand," Smith said.

"We have been working hard to develop a new partnership, and even though we are very close to getting the right arrangements in place with a great partner, producing a festival like WOMAD is a complicated task.

"After consulting our many friends in New Zealand and aware that the Christmas break is upon us, we feel that we have run out of time to get the WOMAD we all know and love in place by 12th March."

It means the region will go without the $3.5-$4 million which the three-day event brings in.

Ezra Collective performing at WOMAD 2020.
Ezra Collective performing at WOMAD 2020. Photo credit: Isabella Brown for RNZ

Taranaki Chamber of Commerce's chief executive Arun Chaudhari said: "The industries that gained the most out of it is accommodation, hospitality, [and] catering".

"But there's also the taxis, companies, and people who have Airbnbs and so on, so it is quite a big financial loss to the region."

It wouldn't just have a financial burden, however, but a cultural one too.

"The musicians, they go to our maraes, they go to our schools. It just enriches the entire culture in this region, which people travel to see from all over the world.

Laura Marling performing at WOMAD 2020.
Laura Marling performing at WOMAD 2020. Photo credit: Isabella Brown for RNZ

"The influence of WOMAD in this region, and nationally, is massive."

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom was positive the city could still put on great events, despite WOMAD now missing from the 2021 calendar.

"It's a significant hit, but New Zealand has a lot to be thankful for with COVID, and the signs of economic recovery just continue to flow through.

"It's disappointing we won't be having the event, but we're actually fortunate that we're having a range of other fantastic events in New Plymouth, and we're open for business."

Smith said the event would return in 2022.