West Coast town Reefton bucks pandemic trend with massive visitor spend increase

With the pandemic raging, the town increased visitor spending by 40 percent.
With the pandemic raging, the town increased visitor spending by 40 percent. Photo credit: Supplied / Stewart Nimmo

A small West Coast town is claiming to have bucked the trend by experiencing a tourism boom during the pandemic.

Reefton, around 80 kilometres north east of Greymouth, experienced a 40 percent increase in visitor spending during 2021.

That saw tourists spending $7.2 million in 2021, up from $5.1 million in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to MarketView data.

Heath Milne, chief executive of Development West Coast said locals have been working together for decades to revitalise the town.

Heath Milne
Photo credit: Supplied

"Reefton is home to some of the best fishing and mountain biking in the world, but what really makes the town stand out is the civic pride and entrepreneurial spirit of locals who have been working together to bring Reefton back to its former glory," Milne said.

"Reefton was a boomtown during the gold rush days, but like many small towns in regional New Zealand it fell into decline towards the end of the 20th century."

One of the keys to revitalisation of Reefton, which has included a town centre full of shops, cafes and art galleries, was when John Bougen moved to the town.

Bougen is now a councillor and chair of the Inangahua Community Board, having previously co-founded the DressSmart factory shopping centres.

According to Bougen, Reefton "unleashed his passion" for heritage preservation and restoration of historically important buildings.

He is currently converting the old state mine workshops into a New York style loft called Ground Floor Reefton, which he plans to live in.

"Reefton is the last true town left in New Zealand," Bougen said.

"It's big enough to have all the services you need, and small enough that you know what is going on."

One of the latest restorations in town is the conversion of the Old Knox Church into a guest house, undertaken by Sarah and Andy Parker.

They moved to Reefton from North Canterbury after falling in love with the town.

Sarah and Andy Parker moved to Reefton from North Canterbury after they fell in love with the town while restoring and converting the church.

"Andy is originally from England so was raised in many historical old buildings, a church renovation was something he'd always wanted to do, so when we saw the opportunity to do this in Reefton we relished the idea," Sarah Parker said.

The church was originally built in 1884 and was in a poor state when the couple first saw it.

"We could see the potential in the old building and after visiting, we noticed there was a real drive to restore and keep Reefton's historic buildings and rich history, and we've enjoyed being part of the journey," she said.

"Reefton is a unique town with so much to offer, it evokes a real feeling of nostalgia, because of this I believe people take the time to appreciate their surroundings and feel they can actually relax."

Mountain biking in Reefton
Photo credit: Supplied / Stewart Nimmo

According to Milne, Reefton hasn't put all of its eggs in one basket and so doesn't rely just on tourism.

Mining is flourishing in the area again, with the Department of Conservation labelling the restoration work done at a former OceanaGold mining site near Reefton as "world-class".

A new underground mining project is already employing 48 people.

"Reefton has become an incredibly attractive place, not just for visitors, but for entrepreneurial investors and new residents looking for a better work-life balance," Milne concluded.