Whakatāne tourism retailers bracing for quiet business year following White Island eruption

Whakatāne tourism retailers bracing for quiet business year following White Island eruption

Winter is coming and Whakatāne tourism retailers are quivering with uncertainty. 

The eruption of Whakaari/White Island on December 9, which has killed 21 people, has caused a plummet in the district’s visitors. 

Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner says the explosion happened just as the town’s peak tourism time was due to begin. 

Turner says she has spoken to retailers who told her it hasn't been a good time for trading. 

"They've not taken the sales that they would have needed to get them through the rest of the year when it's quieter, so we have some concerns for them. 

"Retailers are mainly concerned about getting through the next part because they are carried by the profits they make over summer, and they haven't had those profits," she says. 

The Whakatāne District Council, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Tourism Bay of Plenty are working together on a campaign to highlight the range of visitor experiences on offer throughout the district. 

Local businesses who were immediately impacted following the eruption are currently applying for a portion of the emergency fund announced by the Government late last year. 

Turner says beyond that spending, they need to talk to the Government about other hard-to-anticipate "pressures and stressors".

"I think because of the fact that summer wasn't as good for some businesses… we have to assume the rest of the year could be quite challenging.

"I think we need to go back to Government and ask them 'what else can you help us to do?'"

Turner herself says she has felt the effects from the drop in tourism numbers because her husband runs a small bed and breakfast in town.

"We had a huge number of cancellations. Most of our visitors are international from Germany, France, the UK and Belgium, so we had a huge number of cancellations over the January [and] February months. 

"However, we are now starting to get a range of other bookings coming in. It's not heavy but it's steady. 

She says she often drives past accommodation to see how many vacancies signs and vehicles are outside. 

"It varies. Some days they've got vacancies and there doesn't look to be many vehicles, but it's mostly good."

With the shoulder season usually being the busiest months for international visitors, the full impact to the district's economy is yet to be felt. 

Whakatāne District Council tourism and events manager Nicola Burgess says boosting tourism marketing for both domestic and international visitors will help mitigate potential financial losses through the shoulder seasons. 

Domestic visitors account for 80 percent of visitors to the Whakatāne District, with $119 million spent annually. 

Burgess says marketing activities will initially focus on growing the domestic market.

"While we see growing our domestic visitors as the best quick-win, bringing international visitors back is also important but will take more time.

"Whakaari/White Island was by-in-large the most popular international visitor attraction for us, so we have a lot of work to do to get those international visitors back," she says.

Turner says there are some exciting opportunities in the local tourism sector.

"We had a Belgium couple come, who had originally booked to go to White Island, understood what had happened, but decided to come anyway.

"My husband took them down to the iSite and introduced them and they got all the stuff about what else they could do. 

"They had a wonderful two days and said they were so glad they came and didn't cancel. 

"It's now how do we get that message out because we've, I guess, piggy backed on the reputation of White Island and the attraction that it is to international visitors. 

"We're in a season [where] we can't piggyback on that for the short term, so what else are we going to do," she says. 

Turner says she has been privileged to meet some of the international visitors after the eruption.

"[They said] 'gosh if we'd known this when we booked we would have booked even longer and would have done White Island and these things as well'."

"We need to capitalise on this and shine a light on all the other wonderful things to do here throughout most months of the year," she says. 

New Zealanders can lend a helping hand by taking a trip to Whakatāne and spending money in the district, Turner says.

"I did hear a story of people who did actually change their holiday plans and thought 'right, let's go down'.  

"They'd come to Whakatāne in previous seasons and hadn't planned to this year but thought, 'no we will, we'll go down there and we'll camp and go and do our holiday down there'.

"They chose to do it because they realised we needed the extra support at this time and that's such a helpful thing," she says. 

"I think people need to do some research and find out it's quite a range of really exciting things that we have on offer. 

"We're still in a very nice season. [There are] a lot of amazing events. The Oxfam Walk, the Food Festival, which I think people have always enjoyed too. So there really are some great opportunities that people could take advantage of."