West Coast tourist towns Fox Glacier and Franz Josef fear collapse as year-long lack of overseas visitors hits

Tourist towns on the West Coast are on the brink of collapse as they struggle to cope without overseas visitors.

Before COVID-19 hit, foreign tourism accounted for over 80 percent of business in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef. But now the isolated towns are struggling to pivot to a domestic market; about 67 percent of businesses have closed down and hundreds of people have lost their jobs.

Prior to the pandemic, tourism operators were rushed off their feet, but after 12 months of closed borders, the whole region is on its knees.

"Through no fault of our own, really, the community is dying," says Andy Hodges, owner and operator of Rainforest Motel in Fox Glacier.

"Financially, it's under stress. The community's depopulated as employees have left, so the fabric of the community is fraying at the edges."

School rolls are down to single digits and emergency service volunteers are stretched to breaking point. 

"It's all I think about every day, really, is our financial situation and how I'm going to get through the next six months," Hodges says. "For my family, children at school, I'm just not sure what's going to happen, really."

Uncertainty has hit Fox Glacier Guiding too. They were forced to let go of 50 staff.

"Normally in a year, we would be doing about 25,000 visitors. I'm going to be lucky if I do a thousand for this last year," says CEO Rob Jewel.

The tiny domestic market simply isn't a viable option. 

"As a business, we have pivoted and yes we have to some degree for the domestic market. We've reduced our prices to help with making it more affordable for New Zealanders, but I guess there's just not enough Kiwis going to make the difference for us," he says.

"Pre-COVID, New Zealanders only made up about 3 percent of our business, so even if I doubled those numbers or tripled those numbers, it's just not enough to be able to sustain ourselves long term."

Fox Glacier valley.
Fox Glacier valley. Photo credit: Getty Images

Up the road in Franz Josef, the economy is on life support.

"Glacier country has always been the beating heart for the West Coast economy. It's been critical to generating revenue for New Zealand," says Richard Benton, owner of the West Coast Wildlife Centre, adding 21 percent of international visitors came to glacier country.

"It generated $130 million of GDP for our country. So with only 1174 people living here, we've always punched above our weight, and punching above our weight has been great, but now we need some help. Not a handout but a hand-up."

Pre-pandemic and at its peak, Franz Josef was hosting around 6000 tourists a day - the environment and the town's infrastructure were struggling to cope. But now with just a domestic market to rely on, they'd be lucky to have just a handful of visitors in town.

The strength of glacier country is also its weakness. The mighty Southern Alps are the source of the glaciers, but also the cause of the region's isolation.

Christchurch is five-and-a-half hours away, Dunedin is seven.

"We're just not a weekend destination. You're just not going to jump in your car on a Friday after work and drive through to Fox, say from Christchurch, and return home on Sunday. That's just really unlikely," Jewel says.

Franz Josef.
Franz Josef. Photo credit: Getty Images

Twenty-five percent of the population has been forced out, which has increased pressure at the foot of the main divide.

"The guts is being ripped out of the community. Every time a mum and a dad go away with their three kids, the school roll changes, then if the dad is in the fire brigade, the fire brigade gets less people, and so from a community point of view it's a real struggle," says Bruce Smith, Mayor of Westland.

Some businesses will not make it through winter.  

"This is at tipping point, this community," Benton says. "How can we last? Each business is different but we really are now down at the coalface and people's reserves have gone."

Without any financial assistance from the Government, they're pinning their hopes on a travel bubble with Australia before it's too far gone.

"We just need an acknowledgment of our situation, we need some financial assistance," Hodges says.

"I'm not sure what form that would take because the Government doesn't want to set precedence just in this area, they have to roll out in other tourist-affected areas.

"But in the long term tourists will come back here, so you need an infrastructure for them to come back to so we have to have something to sustain us for the next six months."

Until then, locals like Hodges will hunker down for their longest winter.