Tourism operators in Queenstown, Rotorua facing 'uncertainty' if low visitor numbers continue

There's growing concern among some tourism industry operators throughout New Zealand that the next few months could be make or break for them.

Businesses in tourism hotspots of both Rotorua and Queenstown, both of which have been forced to rely on domestic tourism, say they're in survival mode now the school holidays are over.

Erna Spijkerbosch, owner of Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde, would normally be run off her feet in the last long weekend of summer, but her bookings are much lower than usual.

"It's taken us back to the late 90s, the numbers that we had in those days."

She says with the borders closed and no international visitors, she fears what the next few months will hold.

"The uncertainty of not knowing how many people are going to arrive, how much staff will we need. It's the uncertainty. The stock answer is I don't know [what will happen in the next few months]."

It's a similar picture at The Rees Hotel, which is expecting bookings this month to be down 90 percent compared to this time last year.

"The coming months, or the next four or five months, are looking pretty dire," Mark Rose, the hotel's CEO, says.

"The booking channels are not busy. I think a lot of New Zealanders have spent their money over the Christmas holidays and they're hunkering down."

The popular hotel has cut its staff numbers from 115 to 53 to help stay afloat.

Meanwhile, the Millennium Hotel in Queenstown's centre has a sign on the front door saying it is temporarily closed - and it's not the only one.

"This week I have had a number of businesses contact me telling me they've either closed down, they will be closing down, or they just can't hang on any longer," Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Jim Boult says.

A report released by the Treasury revealed Queenstown Lakes District is the region most heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. With the employment rate projected to be down by 28 percent by March next year, its economy is not faring much better.

Boult is calling for assistance from the Government.

"I'm talking to Government about a rescue package for tourism and hospitality, and I think that a reintroduction of the wage subsidy is probably the best way to go," he says.

The dire situation is similar in the North Island, where domestic tourists are keeping Rotorua's Canopy Tours above the ground.

"December 26, dead, 27th, dead. By the 28th things had picked up a little once Kiwis got on the road," general manager Paul Button says.

Its sales have halved this summer, and with domestic tourists now back at work and school, it's in serious survival mode.

"Last week we ran 300 people during the week, whereas last year we would have run 600 in that week by itself."

The infamous Zorb has seen its revenue tumble too, where earnings have taken a 40 percent hit.

But businesses that rely on wealthy international tourists are worse off. Seaplane and helicopter flight operator Volcanic Air is only just staying afloat.

"[We're] doing 15 to 20 percent of what we used to do," director Dorien Vroom-Barclay says.

It's now selling shorter flights to entice a cheaper customer.

"We're working on other packages with hiking and flying and creating lots of new things," Vroom-Barclay says.

Economic agency Infometrics expects COVID-19 to wipe 0.8 percent from New Zealand's economy, with regions that rely on tourism to be the hardest hit. 

Taupo was set to sting, but its mayor says thankfully that hasn't happened. 

"Contrary to popular opinion, it's been fantastic," Mayor Dave Trewavas says.

He hopes that holds up.

"Obviously there's March, April, May to get through yet, where we're going to miss those internationals, but luckily 2.5 million people can drive here within a couple of hours so we're very, very fortunate."

It's those months ahead that will test tourism operators most and they're begging Kiwis to visit them. 

"We really need to get back into that 'support local'," Button says.