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Funding Cuts Endanger Waikato’s Tourism Industry, Say Local Leaders

Tourism operators across the Waikato have joined Hamilton & Waikato Tourism chair Richard Leggat in expressing “grave concerns” about proposed council funding cuts for the region’s tourism organisation and the resulting impact on the Waikato visitor sector.

At a meeting last November, Hamilton City councillors voted in favour of a draft Long-Term Plan budget indicating a 50 per cent cut to funding for Hamilton & Waikato Tourism.

Similar funding reductions are being tabled by some of the other five Waikato councils that partner with HWT – Waipā District Council is proposing a 20 per cent decrease; Waikato District Council is proposing a 50 per cent reduction; Waitomo District Council have indicated a significant cut; Matamata-Piako District Council are proposing to hold and Ōtorohanga District Council is yet to confirm their funding decision.

Leggat cautioned significant funding cuts, currently up to 43% collectively, had the potential to make the organisation’s work “untenable” and would have a devastating impact on many Waikato businesses and residents who directly and indirectly rely on tourism for their livelihoods.

“Tourism directly employs more than 12,000 people across the region and is a key contributor to the region’s GDP, providing $1.9billion in visitor spending p.a. It provides jobs, enriches culture and provides community vibrancy through its support for cafes, restaurants, hospitality venues and events in our city and towns.”

Waikato’s current share of the market sees it ranked fifth highest when it comes to visitor spend, adding an average of $5.1 million each day to the region’s economy, and the region hosts 9.7 per cent of all New Zealand business events, attracting 94,400 delegates last year.

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“The compounded investment to date in the regional tourism organisation from our council partners has enabled and assisted with these great results, however historical national and international data shows without a regional tourism organisation the region could face detrimental consequences,” Leggat said.

“We know from past experience having no regional tourism organisation for Waikato is disastrous. The Waikato’s previous regional tourism organisation was closed in 2006 and whether you look at visitor numbers, spend, bed nights, employment or GDP, you can see a clear decline in tourism in our region between 2006 and when our regional tourism organisation was re-established in 2011, and the growth trajectories began to return.”

“If our current market share should drop just half a per cent, that would mean $149 million less spent in the region per annum; or $400,000 dollars less per day into our communities.”

“The data we have suggests, on average, one job is created or sustained for every $151,254 that visitors spend in our region.” If our market share drops by that half a per cent then it potentially equates to 980 less jobs in the region.

Hobbiton Movie Set chief executive Russell Alexander echoed Leggat’s sentiments, saying the number of people visiting Waikato had been strong over the summer and reduction in funding will result in a “loss of momentum”.

“With tourism still rebounding from the global pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis on people’s minds, the gains we have made can’t be taken for granted. Councils should back tourism to make sure Waikato remains on people’s wish-lists and our communities benefit from their fair share of New Zealand’s tourism pie.”

Waitomo Adventures founder and chief executive Nick Andreef said the region risked becoming a “poor cousin” if funding for its regional tourism organisation was reduced.

“It’s amazing what Hamilton & Waikato Tourism achieves, despite already receiving less funding than most regional tourism organisations around the country. They have championed Waitomo to the world and provided valuable capability building that helps operators like us to enhance our offering, leading to return visitation and positive word of mouth for the region.

“Memories can be short. The last time there was a funding cut like the one being proposed, our region was left without a regional tourism organisation and the results were extremely damaging.”

Another vocal supporter of Hamilton & Waikato Tourism’s work is Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.

Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari GM Helen Somerville said the support from the tourism organisation had been a key factor in the Trust’s ability to effectively promote New Zealand’s largest predator fenced eco-sanctuary as a destination for people to be immersed in, and learn about, New Zealand’s precious native flora and fauna.

“We are on a growth journey and a pivotal part of realising our ambitious plan is to leverage the skills and expertise from Hamilton & Waikato Tourism. Simply put, without them and their support, we believe the growth of our tourism business will slow, which has direct impact on our ability to maintain the sanctuary for future generations. We are only now coming back to pre-COVID tourism levels and now is the time we most need the connection and capability of Hamilton & Waikato Tourism team.”

Leggat said the 50 per cent funding cut proposed by Hamilton City Council in its draft budget last year equated to $357,000.

“This relatively small saving (0.08%) in the overall council budget will have a huge impact on the regional tourism organisation’s activity and will put at risk millions of dollars in visitor spending which impacts business sustainability and jobs.”

“Tourism is a real asset to our region and the benefits it brings suggest council investment in our regional tourism organisation pays for itself many times over. The continued investment in the regional tourism organisation should be viewed not only as an investment in an organisation, but in the social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing of our communities. The hundreds of local jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars spent by visitors make continued investment a no-brainer.”

Public consultation on the city and districts’ draft Long-Term Plans takes place in March and April, and Hamilton & Waikato Tourism encourages everyone who directly and indirectly benefits from the visitor sector to have their say.

“Now is the time for people to stand up for tourism, events and hospitality sectors and the multitude of flow on benefits they provide to Waikato communities. We will continue fighting hard for our sector – there’s too much at risk not to,” Leggat said.

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