West Coast town Reefton bucks COVID-19 trend with 40 pct increase in visitor spending during pandemic

By Samantha Gee for RNZ

A small West Coast town has bucked the trend with a 40 percent increase in visitor spending during the pandemic.

In contrast to the national trend, visitor spending in Reefton jumped from $5.1 million, pre-Covid in 2019 to $7.2m in 2021, according to data from MarketView.

Development West Coast (DWC) chief executive Heath Milne said the historic gold-mining town has been a post-Covid-19 success story.

"Reefton is home to some of the best fishing and mountain biking in the world, but what really makes the town stand out is the civic pride and entrepreneurial spirit of locals who have been working together to bring Reefton back to its former glory."

The border closures saw the small town lose around $680,000 in annual spending from international visitors, but an influx of domestic visitors injected an additional $2.8m into the economy last year alone.

Reefton was a boom town during the gold rush days, but like many small towns in regional New Zealand it fell into decline towards the end of the 20th century. To counter this locals have been working together, over the past few decades, to revitalise the town.

An early initiative, in 2002, was to reinstate the distinctive character of the town's main street - through the Reefton Shop Front Project.

Reefton residents take pride in the main street of their historic town.
Reefton residents take pride in the main street of their historic town. Photo credit: Tourism West Coast

Regional economic development agency DWC provided a commercial loan to a community-led group, which was then able to on lend to shop owners at reasonable rates, enabling business owners to renovate their shop fronts in a heritage style.

"The shop front project was an innovative model for community economic development, a leap of faith at the time for the investment made," said Paul Thomas who was part of the project team, and also co-invested in the Broadway Tearooms & Bakery, originally built in 1874.

This project helped restore several shop fronts, lighting the spark for future developments.

The revitalisation of Reefton stepped up a notch when a high-profile entrepreneur John Bougen, the co-founder of Dressmart, moved to the town in 2015.

Now a Buller District councillor, he has been involved in the renovation of around 40 different historic buildings in Reefton, including the original gaol, the school of mines, racecourse buildings, the railway building and a number of shops on the main street.

He is currently converting the old state mine workshops into a New York-style loft accommodation.

"Reefton is the last true town left in New Zealand. It's big enough to have all the services you need, and small enough that you know everyone.

"Since Covid, New Zealand has discovered Buller. Visitors are delighted by the heritage restoration in Reefton. The main street is a joy to see."

Helen McKenzie grew up in Reefton before moving away in her twenties. Returning home in 2014, she now runs Dawsons Hotel and loves the "small town vibe" of Reefton and the interesting characters who live there.

Patsy Bass is another who was drawn back to the small West Coast town. Together with her husband, the couple established the Reefton Distilling Co in 2017 in one of the town's original buildings - the restored 1870s Haralds General Store.

The award-winning distillery has become a major attraction and has since grown to employ up to 25 staff.

It has a revenue of over $3m and has built a new, larger distillery on the edge of town which is soon to open.

Reefton isn't just relying on tourism. Mining, the local dairy industry and the service sector that supports them, are all contributing to ensure broad based economic growth for the town of 920 people.