Coronavirus: West Coast businesses told Govt 'cannot save every single business'

By Tess Brunton for RNZ

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier communities have been told that the Government can't save every business that's struggling during the pandemic.

A week ago the two communities sent Tourism Minister Stuart Nash a $35 million wishlist of what they need to survive. This week he visited Franz Josef with Rural Communities Minister Damien O'Connor but didn't make any promises.

Across Country Quad Bikes used to run four fully booked tours a day, closing for a few months over winter after a hectic summer.

Manager Dora Falconer said international visitors made up nearly 80 percent of their business. She remembers when 10 tour buses a day lined the main street and restaurants were full.

"With lockdown and everything that's been happening, there hasn't been so many people travelling so we are literally running at under 20 percent. So a massive hit.

"At the moment, the owners are just selling their personal assets and putting capital back in the business to try and keep it afloat. We just have to figure out how long that can be done for."

Falconer and the owners of the business are doing everything they can to stay open including getting involved with DoC's Jobs for Nature. But she said there was only so much money they could sink into the business.

"For them, they've been on the coast their whole life. They're Coasters, they've lived in Franz Josef their whole life. I will leave. Staff will leave," Falconer said.

"All my bosses are volunteer firefighters, and my staff are St John volunteers. We are all massive parts of the community so if we all pack up and leave to go get jobs, you leave that support network.

"The owner is one of the main fire guys at the volunteer fire station so you're leaving all those people so it's just going to be sadder and sadder for the town if we all pack up and leave."

Glacier Country Helicopters chief executive Poppy Gordon said they were down to 10 percent during their usually busiest month when they could have 250 people a day.

"Insurance has gone up. Rates are going up to help with the protection of the flood banks and DoC landing concession fees, they've gone up," Gordon said.

"We've hung in there. We've had to tip a lot of money into the business to keep it going. We have 14 staff normally at the peak of summer and were down to - it's just the four of us."

Any loss of emergency service volunteers could prove dire, she said.

"If you have a car crash here and the weather's bad and the rescue chopper can't get to you, you're a good three to four hours on the side of the road, hanging on to your life.

"We have incredible scenery and not the best of roads and we have a huge amount of car crashes."

Businesses had been holding out hope the ministers were in town to announce some immediate support.

Stuart Nash.
Stuart Nash. Photo credit: The AM Show

But Nash was quick to point out he was there to listen, not make promises.

"Look, we've been very honest. We cannot save every single business, and the Government hasn't got a blank chequebook we can write to every business that is struggling and that is a really hard message to give," Nash said.

"But it's one that does need to be given. As mentioned we are working on a workstream at the moment that will look to provide support until the borders do open. But that has to go to Cabinet before we can release anything there."

Glacier Country Tourism co-chair Richard Benton said the Minister might have got the wrong end of the stick about why support was needed.

"I think the minister missed the point. This is all about the community, its not specifically just about tourism. It's about the plumbers, the electricians, the emergency services, the ambulance service, it's fire. It's all those ancillary services that are related to this particular region and without business, those services don't exist," he said.

Quentin Arnold has been working with Heliservices in Franz Josef for 17 years. They faced bridge washouts, road closures and flooding during peak season the year before Covid. He had been hopeful for more direction and support from Nash.

"Come next summer, we were under no illusion, it's going to be a highly affected summer still. Trans Tasman - I think - Australia was a big part of what we do. If we can get that, that's going to put survival on the table for a little bit longer."

New Zealanders had been very supportive, but they couldn't alleviate the nearly 80 percent hole in their business, he said

And the future is looking grim without more support.

"In six months time, I don't think every business will be closed. But if a few businesses hang on, if there's no accommodation, there's no restaurants, people aren't going to come. So it sort of affects everyone. We need all businesses in the town to remain," Arnold said.

A drop-in centre will be open in Franz Josef this afternoon to offer advice and support to residents and businesses.