Formal review announced into how Government gave funding to tourism operators struggling with border closures

A formal review will be conducted into how the Government dished out funding to tourism operators struggling with border closures.

The $290 million rescue package was criticised when three of the country's most successful tourism operators were given funding before applications for others even opened.  

When COVID-19 hit, it was tourism that flinched and it was forecast to lose between $18 billion and $21 billion.

All tourism operators felt it.

"Our world just changed really fast," said Poppy Gordon, chief executive of Glacier Country Helicopters.

The Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme was launched, with former Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis at the helm.

"No one can accuse us of sitting around and twiddling our thumbs when tourism operators were crying out for support," Davis said.

But that swift action has led to an inquiry by the Auditor General. 

Concerns about criteria, processes and transparency were highlighted in a report released on Thursday.

"Ministers were operating under intense pressure and very uncertain times," said current Tourism Minister Stuart Nash.

But so was Glacier Country Helicopters. Their funding application was declined, despite relying on tourists.

Meanwhile, three of the largest, most successful tourism operators were given funding before everyone else.

"It was a bit of a hard pill to swallow as some operators were handed a gift from the Government and cruised through and others have had to battle and pivot," Gordon said.

The Auditor-General noted the challenges and the Government's intention to deliver support quickly. But its haste showed - the process took just two months.

On May 14, the programme was announced. By June 18, applications had closed but three major tourism operators had already received funding. 

On July 2, all eligible applications were approved and on July 24, decisions on applications were made. 

"Keeping in mind this was to save strategic tourism assets and to keep people employed and we estimate we saved around 3000 jobs in the tourism sector," Nash said.

The Auditor-General said there was an unacceptable lack of evidence in decision making, lack of clarity, and applications were treated differently. 

"When you see your peers and some just getting enormous handouts and you don't, there's a number of people in the same shoe. It could have been dished out fairly across the board," Gordon said.

Now, there will be a formal review.