Tour and coach industry continues to suffer, despite promise of international tourists

Tour buses (file photo).
The COVID-19 pandemic decimated the tourism industry. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Emma Hatton of RNZ

A second-hand bus boom has developed because tour coach companies, which have struggled with closed borders and domestic restrictions for the last two years, are winding down.

February saw a 71 percent increase in the number of buses listed for sale on TradeMe compared to the year prior.

The asking price for the buses was also up - suggesting they were newer and nicer.

Brent Early has been running Leopard Coachlines, one of the largest privately-owned luxury tour coach companies in New Zealand, for the past 30 years.

"We were of scale. Depots in Auckland and Christchurch, coaches running throughout the entire country, so reasonable size.

"At our peak, we had about 150 full time staff."

In February, after two years of zero income he made the call to finally wind things up, placing the firm into liquidation believing the next 12 months would be more of the same.

"The last straw for me was when the government said we're gonna open borders in May for Australia and [the rest of the world] in October but there will still be this one week of isolation requirement.

"So, for me that was that... no tourist was even going to come to New Zealand and isolate for a week when they could go to Australia and get off the plane and be free."

Only a few weeks later the government wound back its isolation requirement - something Brent Early said would have been nice to know before he shut up shop on a 60-year-old business.

Ben McFadgen from the Bus and Coach Association said by next month two-thirds of the tour coach industry, like Leopard, would be gone. A third have already folded.

He said government support for tourism completely missed the mark by focusing too much on the destinations themselves and when tourists finally returned, there would be a huge hole in the transport market.

"If you don't have any way that tourists can get to those destinations, no matter how much money you put into them it's a waste of time.

"Right now we've got a situation where we could quite conceivably have a lot of high-value tourists landing in this country and literally having no way to get around."

Early believes had the $600 million spent on the tourism sector been allocated in different ways, more companies could have been saved.

"If that had all been put on the table and businesses had been supported pro-rata to their size - and that's a very easy thing to do as the government only has to ask IRD to pro rata it according to GST receipts.

"That would have bee fair and equitable. Everyone would have benefited from that, rather than cherry-picking a few winners."

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash defended the support available to the bus and coach sector.

"Government has given $600 million in targeted support to the tourism sector, and billions of dollars more in broad-based support through wage subsidies, zero-interest loans, resurgence payments during the Delta outbreak and Covid-19 support payments through the Omicron outbreak.

"Bus and coach operators were also supported with targeted Transport Ministry funding, under the Essential Transport Connectivity scheme in 2020. This gave financial support to the non-aviation domestic transport sector, to support operators to maintain connections."

He said government investment had encouraged domestic tourism and defended the controversial STAPP (Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme) scheme.

"We knew our support through the STAPP scheme would not save all tourism businesses, and it was not designed to do this. It was designed to shore up our key tourism assets, to bide time till borders could be safely opened once more.

"Our borders re-open to international visitors in two weeks. New Zealand is open for business and our tourism destinations are amongst the world's best."

The Auditor-General recently criticised the STAPP scheme for a lack of transparency and clarity.