News In BriefOpinion

We Need to Talk About Queenstown

Is the industry and media giving an airbrushed version of Post COVID-19 tourism recovery in ANZ? Darren Lovell, chef and business owner, Fishbone Queenstown, gives his opinion on Queenstown’s tourism industry recovery!

There’s a bloody big elephant stampeding through the streets of Queenstown and no one, it seems, can see it.

It’s big, it’s ugly and it’s as plain as day. And if someone doesn’t do something soon, that bloody big elephant is going to smash our streets to smithereens.

Of course, the stampeding elephant is metaphorical. Our elephant, the one thing no one seems to be talking about, is that we are a tourist town with no tourists.

How does that work folks? Well, guess what?  It doesn’t.

We can pretend all we like how great the school holidays were, how fantastic marathon weekend was, and yes, I’m told, hang on it there, a travel bubble to Australia will be with us soon.

“Things are on the improve,” writes my landlord, responding to my email explaining why I can’t pay the full amount of rent owing for the sixth month straight. “There’s a vaccine coming.”

I scream. I cry. Doesn’t anyone get it? We need the vaccine now. We need our boarders open now. We need tourists now. Without them I do not have a profitable business. Hands up if the same thing applies to you. I bet, without asking, it does at Canyon Swing, and KJet, and NZone, Eicharts and on and on.

Slowly, day-by-day, week-by-week this town is dying, and no one, it seems, wants to talk about it.

They certainly don’t in Wellington, where they are too busy patting themselves on the back at how well the country is doing, how the price of an average home is soaring, how unemployment is nowhere near as bad as they thought it was going to be. Hurrah!

Meanwhile tourist towns across the country are crashing like the All Blacks against the Pumas. No one saw that coming either.

The hard-working shop keepers and hoteliers and adventure tour operators in Te Anau will be dreading this summer, knowing that the buses carrying tourists from around the world to visit Milford Sound will not be pulling up for a sandwich and cuppa in their town.

The usual swag of Kiwi trampers will still use the town as a launching pad to explore Fiordland national park but trust me, New Zealand tourists do not pay the rent.

There are not enough Kiwi tourists to sustain New Zealand. Our population is smaller than Sydney!

How are the souvenir shops surviving with no tourists? Does anyone ask them? Does anyone care? I do. We all should. Who buys one of those cute Global Culture T-shirts featuring a Kiwi in jandals barbecuing a snag? Aucklanders?

Notice there is no line at Fergburger? Great hey?  We can get our Big Al whenever we want. As a business owner is this town for the past 15 years – and a successful one at that – I use the Fergburger queue as a barometer to tell me how busy town is. When the line of burger lovers is past The London it’s time to add more staff to the roster. Well, if there is no queue this is not a cause for celebration, it’s cause for concern.

Be worried that you can now find a park, please.

Did anyone go into town the other Sunday? Of course, you didn’t. No one did. Town was dead. It was our quietest day ever.

Remember how vibrant it all was?  How our streets swelled with people from around the world; how we laughed at the tourists in a line for a milkshake from Cookie Time, despite the loud blaring pop music; how we drove around, seemingly hour after hour looking for a park. How we soaked is all up, revelling in the idea of how we could live somewhere so beautiful and yet so energetic and cosmopolitan. Every day felt like the weekend, everyday was a party.

Well, the party is over and it’s Monday. There’s a long week ahead before we see a weekend again.

As our mayor hinted on these very pages a few weeks ago, having no international visitors is not sustainable. There’s a storm coming and no one, unless, like me, you own a business that relies on overseas visitors, can see it.

Someone I know who manages a retail store in Beach Street was telling me he had to film the empty streets recently so he could show his overlords in Auckland why his sales figures were so poor.

This time last year, Fishbone, the restaurant I have owned since 2006, was gearing up for summer. We employed 18 staff. Exactly 75 percent of our customers came from somewhere other than New Zealand. On a summer’s night you couldn’t get a table without a reservation, heck you couldn’t get a table anywhere in town without a reservation

Now Fishbone is gone. The crayfish tank I imported from Australia a decade ago sits empty in the back of what now is Love Chicken – The Pop UP and 18 Fishbone staff is reduced to four. (I popped up Love Chicken because I felt that it had a better chance of survival than Fishbone. I don’t regret the move; Love Chicken requires less staff.)

That is 14 less people from just one business in town who aren’t going out on a weeknight to Cowboys, or Little Blackwood or any of the other bars in town. Fourteen young people not renting rooms, shopping at Fresh Choice or going to the movies. Fourteen people not spending money at Devil Burger.

How many other businesses have had to shrink their staff? How many people have left town?

We are a town with no tourists and our population in shrinking.  And there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

I know we can’t open our boarders anytime soon; I know that a travel bubble with Australia is still a way off; I know there aren’t any instant solutions but please, can we all stop pretending that everything is ok?  

We need to talk about Queenstown. Everything is not ok.

Do you agree with Darren? Is your region recovering as well as the experts are saying? Accom News wants to know…

Darren Lovell

Darren Lovell, chef and business owner, Fishbone Queenstown

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2 Comments

  1. Darren Lovell is correct. And unfortunately the 6 months after Christmas will be tougher than the previous 6 months for the Lakes District. Kiwis did a great job of travelling after lockdown ended but their numbers are not able to sustain businesses while the borders remain closed.
    Our Govt is congratulating itself for handing out millions to a select few businesses that were fortunate enough to fit the “pick a winner” STAPP criteria but ignoring the remaining businesses that are hanging on by their fingernails.

  2. Absolutely correct! We are a motel business and we are dreading the summer – we lost our profit making months this year and we can absolutely foresee that Feb,Mar,April,May 2021 will be not producing profit or even meeting costs for the 2nd year in a row. We are terrified. We stand to lose everything. The government has been ominously silent since re-election on the subject of commercial rent reduction and arbitration financial support since Winston Peters forced it to be put on ice by refusing to vote in Parliament. Why has that not been resurrected? Are we all supposed to just struggle on until we eventually fail? When the likes of publicly funded AJ Hackett Ltd gets given 10.5 million while the rest of us go begging, the govt is courting a crisis. Small business is dangerously close to collapse and all the govt has offered us so far is a path to debt. Given most of us cant even meet the rent how in the Lord’s name are we supposed to repay debt? The numbers of kiwis travelling is small and there is no way that those that can afford and are travelling can in any way sustain the tourism and hospitality industry that previously earned billions. Its pie in the sky to even entertain the notion. I dread to think what the coming 6 months are going to bring. And….. all we get on TV is how much better than expected retail is doing. The real picture is not being reported in any way, shape or fashion. We need Small Business and Tourism Ministers to step up and take action!

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