'Would we slaughter all the cows?': Queenstown Mayor says tourism industry won't survive another year of closed borders

Leaving South Island tourism businesses to fend for themselves while the borders are shut has been compared to slaughtering every cow in the country. 

Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult is gutted the Government doesn't appear to be planning any special assistance for the region, as businesses go into hibernation and threaten to close completely, unable to hold out until the threat of COVID-19 is over. 

"Queenstown businesses did not cause our borders to close, and yet we're being asked to pay the price," he told The AM Show on Friday, begging the Government for a new wage subsidy package and loans so tourism operators can survive until the borders reopen. 

"If we were talking about the inability to export milk powder for two years, would we slaughter all the cows then wait until new ones come along to start the business again? That's what's effectively being asked here." 

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash on Thursday said he had sympathy for tourism businesses "bleeding all over the country", but it was a "cold, hard reality" that any reliant on international travel - unable to pivot to the domestic market - were in trouble.

"The reason we have been able to keep the vast majority of New Zealand businesses safe and people safe is we have taken this very strong health approach. But that does mean that borders have remained closed and there are no international tourists in this country."

Nash said a package wasn't off the table, but the Government doesn't have a "bottomless pit of money". 

Stuart Nash.
Stuart Nash. Photo credit: The AM Show

Boult said he is in regular contact with Nash.

"It's not just Queenstown - it is Te Anau, it's Franz Josef, it's Wanaka, all of those southern tourism towns. The further away from Auckland you go, the harder it is to get domestic business there." 

The problem is Queenstown is a pricy destination for most New Zealanders, who live far away - Boult says the travel costs alone for a family of four travelling from Auckland are around $2000. 

"There's talk of pivoting... to a domestic market. If the domestics aren't there, there's nowhere else to go." 

Jim Boult.
Jim Boult. Photo credit: The AM Show

Nash said it would likely be at least 2022 before the borders would open, and didn't want to spend anything from the $14 billion remaining in the COVID fund just yet, in case of a future outbreak.

Appearing on The AM Show on Friday, Labour MP David Parker - Minister of Revenue and Associate Minister of Finance - said there was a chance of Australian tourists would be here sooner than 2022 to help. 

"I think the Australian bubble's likely to be open before then and that will bring a lot of tourists, who will disproportionately come to Queenstown."

A previous attempt at a bubble with Australia was popped when the highly infectious UK strain of COVID-19 showed up in Auckland. 

As for the chances of a wage subsidy targeted to the southern tourism industry, Parker said Queenstown had already received an outsized share of the spending so far - $1.8 billion - and also a "big share" of the $400 million tourism package in last year's Budget. 

"We do have to be a bit careful we don't lose the essential businesses... if there was a chance they were going to completely fail... we already monitor those essential businesses. But there is some truth in the fact we can't prop up every business that's adversely affected by COVID, and that's true in Queenstown as well."

Simon Bridges and David Parker.
Simon Bridges and David Parker. Photo credit: The AM Show

National MP Simon Bridges, who was leader when the pandemic struck, said the Government was happy to "splash the cash" on Treaty of Waitangi settlements, so should loosen the purse-strings a bit.

"They're pretty free with the money. This is our second-biggest industry in New Zealand and they're saying 'nah'."

In the meantime, Boult plans to keep the pressure on Nash. 

"I like the guy, I think he's very good. At least he was very honest yesterday. But we're not giving up on this and the minister knows I'll keep on banging on his door until hopefully we see a rescue package."