Reefton defying odds with tourism boom, but neighbouring towns aren't seeing same success

Reefton is famous for its pioneering spirit, being the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to get electricity - but now they're also defying the odds with a tourist boom.

Visitor spending is up by more than 40 percent in the West Coast town, but their success is not being shared with neighbouring towns. 

Reefton is a West Coast town to watch. 

"Reefton has never gone out to be a tourist destination and I think that what's ended up happening is," says Buller District Councillor John Bougen. 

"We've just kind of surprised a whole bunch of New Zealanders about how cute it is, how good it is, what we have to offer, and the net result is that now it's become a destination in its own right."

Gold mining in the area is flourishing, it's home to some of the best fishing in the world, but crucially this little town has been revitalised. 

For 30 years locals have slowly transformed all their shop fronts to their former historic glory resulting in tourism. 

"I love it, it's really quaint, really just relaxed and people are so friendly," says one resident.

"I could not believe the fantastic variety of creative skills and abilities people have in Reefton," said another.

"I love looking at all the shops and spending some money and it's nice to remember when I get back to Sydney." 

Reefton is now welcoming its locals back. 

Patsy Bass moved home after 20 years in Christchurch to turn pure West Coast water into gin. 

"We've been open now for almost three years and our feet literally haven't touched the ground since we opened," said Bass, Reefton Distilling Co. founder. 

The flow-on of their success has been felt throughout the town. 

"Generally it is booming, the cafes are busy, the hotels have said they've never had anything like it in terms of numbers at dinner in the evenings and things there are a lot of people from out of town buying now both commercial properties and residential." 

But the same can't be said for towns further south, which rely almost entirely on international tourism. Their numbers are worse this year than they were last year. 

"Reefton's really a stand-out on the West Coast. If you look at the statistics on tourism as an example since COVID-19, they've had a 42 percent increase in visitor spend," says Development West Coast chief executive Heath Milne.

"Franz Josef [is] currently sitting at [a] 49 percent decrease so it really is a success story."

It's one locals are fiercely proud to tell. 

"We've kind of snuck up on the world and that's a good place to be," says Bougen.

Another one to add to the list of must-visits.