Tourism industry doing better in places Kiwis can drive, not so good if they have to fly - report

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the country to shut its borders, one region of New Zealand actually saw an uptick in tourism last year - Northland.

It was only a small increase, according to Infometrics' latest Quarterly Economic Monitor report, but indicative of the overall buoyancy of the regional economy following the shock of the pandemic.

"Northland region has been a key area of focus, with tourism spending rising 1 percent, making Northland the best performing regional area for tourism in the 2020 calendar," said senior economist Brad Olsen.

But it's an outlier. Otago in particular has been hit hard, with tourism spending down 23 percent. Nationwide it was down 16 percent. 

Northland's key to success is likely its proximity to Auckland, with New Zealanders having a "focus on drive-based rather than flight-based destinations". 

"We've seen an interesting change in terms of how domestic tourism is happening across the country," said Olsen. 

"Kiwis are certainly keen to get out and explore their backyard, but the focus at the moment seems to be on driving locations, rather than flying locations - which means areas like Northland, Coromandel, Whanganui and Wairarapa are performing particulary well... but that leaves some destinations closer to airports and further away from driveable locations, they are not feeling as much of the love when it comes to domestic tourism spending." 

The report shows the New Zealand economy overall is charting "a more optimistic and upbeat path" than most, "as restrictions on economic and social activity remain lower than almost anywhere globally". 

"Regional economies are pressing ahead, with rising job numbers, robust spending activity, and higher building levels all helping to accelerate economic momentum," said Olsen. 

Hawke's Bay and Gisborne lead the way, activity up 3.7 percent in the December quarter. Nationwide, activity rose 0.2 percent. 

"Strong primary sector activity has supported economic activity in the eastern North Island, with fruit exports performing particularly strongly. Otago region continues to be hard-hit by the loss of international tourism, with the peak summer season expected to be a tough period as borders remain closed." 

Auckland's August COVID-19 outbreak hurt Otago's Queenstown hard.

"We need [Aucklanders] here. We need the economy to get ticking over again," Mayor Jim Boult told The AM Show in September. Last week he warned the town's entire industry was at risk of collapse if assistance from the Government didn't come soon. 

The Infometrics report follows grim forecasts for the South Island's West Coast. A report commissioned by Development West Coast, released earlier this week, predicts a 5.8 percent drop in GDP in the year to March, the region still struggling a year after its only lockdown. Nationwide, the most recent figures - the year to September - showed a 2.2 percent decline in GDP. That's expected to improve in the December quarter figures, which will be out in mid-March.  

The West Coast had one of the slowest-growing GDPs in the country before the pandemic hit, ahead of only Taranaki, Statistics NZ data shows. 

New Zealanders have spent less time under onerous restrictions than most other countries, having successfully stopping widespread transmission of COVID-19 in 2020 with one of the world's toughest lockdowns. Further outbreaks since then have been controlled through short, sharp lockdowns or via rapid contact tracing and isolation, without need for restrictions. 

In contrast, some countries are still looking for ways out of lockdown - such as the UK, which suffered its worst economic hit in 300 years - or are still ramping up their response, such as Sweden. 

Olsen said while it's important not to "lose sight of the upbeat outlook for the economy", struggling regions shouldn't be forgotten. 

"Not all parts of the economy are back to normal or seeing booming activity, with the loss of international tourism being keenly felt in some areas."