Inquiry launched into controversial Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme

An inquiry has been launched into the Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme
An inquiry has been launched into the Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme Photo credit: Newshub

An inquiry has been launched into how money from a Government tourism rescue package was allocated, prompted by concerns eligible companies missed out.  

The Auditor-General (AG) is carrying out the inquiry after questions were raised by the media and with their office around the transparency and clarity of the package. 

The recovery package - called the Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme (STAPP) - was launched in May 2020 by the Ministry of Business and Innovation to help tourism businesses hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In March of that year, New Zealand closed its borders to anyone who wasn't a citizen or resident, killing off the billion-dollar international tourism market. 

The programme, which was overseen by the Tourism Recovery Ministers Group, was designed to inject cash into ailing tourist business and stave off job losses. 

Before it even got off the ground the programme came under fire for giving AJ Hackett Bungy $5.1 million along with a loan of the same amount. Critics said it was too much for the company and cited its wealthy owners. 

The programme also gave Whale Watch Kaikōura $1.5m and Discover Waitomo $4m.  

The STAPP then opened up an official application process, which ran for two weeks. More than $290 million was committed to the tourism sector through the Programme, but 160 tourism business were viewed as ineligible and received nothing, prompting concerns about how the money was allocated. 

In September last year, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis defended the programme, saying it was not sustainable to support every business.  

He told Magic Talk's Road to the Election the programme supports eligible tourism companies. 

"We've always been upfront as a Government to say that we can't support every business and every job. People said that we were mainly going to focus mainly on the big end of town, and now we're getting criticised saying that we're supporting too many small businesses," Davis said.

"We think that we've got it right. We had criteria, we had a process and the process had three layers of scrutiny, and ultimately the Tourism Recovery Ministers - there are about five of us - we had to make the decisions as to where that money's going to go.

National's then tourism spokesperson Todd McClay criticised Davis earlier in September for the "slow drip-feed of announcements" for the tourism industry, and instead said the Government should establish a "proper plan to save jobs" across the sector.

"The Government has delivered a patchwork response for an industry where 400,000 jobs were employed directly and indirectly by tourism," McClay said.

"There are thousands and thousands of operators across every region of New Zealand who will be asking 'is that it' after the Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on fewer than 200 companies.

The Auditor-General said in a statement the inquiry will "focus on the actions and processes underpinning the initial eligibility assessments and subsequent assessment of eligible proposals.

"We will examine how applications from tourism businesses have been assessed against the Programme's criteria."