How Westland tourism operators are preparing for this summer's influx of visitors

The tourism tap has been turned back on, but the return of foreign visitors is just a slow trickle and it won't be flowing steadily until summer.  

By then, tourism operators in Westland are hoping they have enough staff to cope with demand. At its peak, 7000 people a day would visit glacier country, and 800,000 a year.

Westland businesses are recovering and preparing for what's to come - and some can't wait for the influx of visitors.

"We can't wait to get real busy again. I think everyone is frothing to get back into the sky," said Robbie Stewart, base manager at Skydive Franz and Fox Glacier by INFLITE.

Whether someone is jumping out of a plane or accepting accommodation bookings, the thrill of what Westland has to offer is returning. 

"Buoyant, positive, and we've got lots of anticipation of the upcoming season," said Andy Hodges, owner and operator of Rainforest Motel Fox Glacier.

For the last two years, the only reliable visitor has been the rain. 

"The West Coast is known for its rain, so it's an attraction in itself," Hodges said.

But it doesn't bring in the big bucks. 

Glacier country's economy was built on tourism and livelihoods were decimated when New Zealand's borders closed two-and-a-half years ago.

"We lost almost all of our business," Stewart said.

The lifeline was the Department of Conservation's (DoC) Jobs for Nature programme, where 170 people from 43 businesses completed more than 70,000 hours of conservation work. 

More than 80 kilometres of tracks were maintained and more than 900 hectares of weeds were controlled. 

"Tracks and everything here are in the best state to welcome people back," said Wayne Costello, DoC's operations manager in the south Westland district.

The Government project also fostered relationships between tourism operators and DoC rangers, one that didn't exist pre-COVID-19.

"Walking the tracks, spraying weeds, etc, actually brings a new dimension," Stewart said.

The $3.8 million programme has been renewed for a third year and it's a welcome stopgap until more tourists return.  

Fox Glacier.
Fox Glacier. Photo credit: Getty Images

Sights that used to be synonymous with glacier country are now rare, but they're there. 

"The view is awesome. It's just boggy at the moment. I'm loving it so far, can't complain, definitely going to come back," said Brisbane resident James Choice.

"We're going to go and land on Franz Josef Glacier. It's going to be out of this world, it's going to be amazing," said Queensland resident Jake Barnes.

As the return of international visitors solves one issue, it also highlights another. 

"We're pretty desperate for staff here and it'll be pretty hard for some of the tourist operators to fill their staffing rosters when they pick up," said acting Westland District Mayor David Carruthers.

Westland isn't the only tourist hotspot crying out for staff, but it is the one that's being targeted. 

"There are businesses and we've seen one in particular from Queenstown come into Fox and Franz to go door-knocking looking to tempt workers down to Queenstown," said Heath Milne, CEO of Development West Coast.

"That's a bit of a concern we might have to go and do that to them."

Carruthers doesn't want a bar of it.

"Stay away, keep your hands off our people, we need them here to stay here," he said.

As bookings bump back up, they're looking a little different than they did two years ago.

"Our traditional markets from 15-20 years ago, the American market, the European market, Australia and Singapore, Taiwan," Hodges said.

But not China, our largest market - it's still locked down. 

When borders closed, spending in glacier country plummeted by 74 percent, but domestic spending increased by 7 percent. 

As foreign tourists start trickling back, tourism operators now face the challenge of striking a balance between the international and domestic market without slipping back into the mass tourism model.

"I don't think that we will ever go back to the way that we were," Stewart said.

"If something like, well, the pandemic strikes again, we aren't in the same boat," Hodges added.

However it looks, booking figures show Westland may climb back to 60 percent of pre-pandemic numbers by summer, but just how quickly it returns to full speed is still dependent on COVID-19.