COVID-19: How Māori tourism operators have adapted to the times as borders finally reopen

It's been a long and anxious 26 months for our tourism industry with strict travel restrictions putting a halt to Aotearoa's billion-dollar Māori tourism industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt our Māori tourism operators a devastating blow. 

"We originally thought it would be a couple of weeks or a couple of months or three months at the most. It's kind of like being on a really long tangi. 

"There's a lot of loss, a lot of sadness," said Nadine Toetoe, who owns and operates Kohutapu Lodge and Tribal Tours, an authentic contemporary cultural experience on the outskirts of Murupara in the Bay of Plenty.

The award-winning accommodation sits on Karl's Whenua in Ngāti Manawa country - a landlocked iwi that knows how to survive when resources are scarce.

"Some people in the tribe were able to survive in areas where the resources were rich so there was plentiful kai, water and in other parts of the rohe wasn't so great. So at a certain time of the year, the chief of the tribe would ask everybody to uproot and rotate around, so those who had it good would then have it not so good, and the iwi would learn to share and awhi and survive together," Toetoe explained.

The couple has had to draw on that strength over the past two years, with the downturn in tourists stripping 95 percent of their business overnight.

"It's hard to explain in words how we have survived and what motivated us to carry on. This is not just a place of business for us, we live on-site, this is our home, this is our Whenua.

"You don't just give up on that," said Toetoe.

Kohutapu had enough to stay afloat with help of $500,000 dollars from the Government's Strategic Tourism Asset Protection Programme and a low-interest, five-year loan, which Toetoe said saved their business.

An hour's drive from Kohutapu is Tamaki Māori Village - one of Rotorua's top tourist attractions.

Kiri Atkinson-Crean is the head of tourism for Tauhara North Trust, which owns the village, and said the past two years have been the toughest in Tamaki's 30-year history.

They also received STAPP funding which has allowed them to retain most of their 110 kaimahi.

And they've managed to keep busy. With no tourists to feed, they've been using their kitchen to make school lunches for local charity Ka Pai Kai.

"So that was a really cool avenue… we're good at food and beverage… We're good at doing that kind of work. It's a natural alignment, really in many ways," said Atkinson-Crean.

"For all of the hardship that COVID has brought with it, it has also been an opportunity for the Māori tourism industry to look inward and to start interrogating ourselves about, 'OK, so here we are, what do we do?'"

Before COVID-19, the village's concerts and feasts were enjoyed by about 100,000 people a year. They are coming up with new ways of doing things in a post-COVID world and adapting to the times.

"We have re-engineered a visitor experience, which we think better aligns with our values. It will pay our people more. 

"It will honour the stories of the ancestors much in a much stronger way."

Jamus Webster is the village's cultural and performance manager and helped develop their new programme, that's set to launch for Matariki in June.

"We just have to adapt, our tipuna adapted to the times, you know, during the migration and coming down to, from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. That's what we have to do at these current times," Webster added.

They're cranking up their marketing campaign and getting ready to attract not just overseas visitors but local ones too.

"Switching our way of thinking as well to more attract our local and our local domestic market so that they can understand and relearn what actually is happening in their own backyards… and it's where we're heading into and especially with the introduction of Māori history, New Zealand history that has been injected into the new education system," said Webster.

The domestic market has been keeping things ticking over at Kohutapu too.

"It's just lovely to have people out here and to be able to extend our manaaki to our own people, and we work just as hard if not harder for our own to pay back the thanks of them supporting us through these times," said Toetoe.

Despite not operating at full capacity, Kohutapu managed to keep the workers that needed the income.

"It's our staff who have been with us for the last two years have seen the ups and downs and are still here with us. We have got a responsibility to ensure that they still got a job and can put kai on the table for their whanau too," Toetoe said.

New Zealand Māori Tourism is in contact with about 450 Māori tourism businesses but says the sector is much larger. In 2018 it added almost $1 billion to New Zealand's economy, including 25,000 jobs. 

Getting back to that revenue and finding staff pose the biggest challenges to the industry's future.

"Over the last two years our people have had to go out and find other jobs and work in other industries, and they realised they could finish at 5pm and have their weekends back," said Toetoe.

"And so it's going to be really, really difficult to entice people back into the tourism industry. 

"It's also a chance for the industry to recognise the value of cultural tourism and those employed in it. After more than two years in the wilderness, those in Māori tourism are standing by ready to welcome back manuhiri.

"It'll be a gentle open, it'll be soft this summer but there'll be people. We're all just so excited at the opportunity to roll out that manaaki better than before.

"We're psyched up. We're ready to go. 

"We'll dig deep. Our facilities definitely are not five-star. We don't have a 500 thread count on our bunk beds. But I'll tell you what the feeling you get and the feeling our people and our community and our staff give our visitors, that's five-star," Toetoe added.