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Nature Tourism Will Be Back – Conservation Board Advisor

Tourism on the West Coast has suffered a savage blow from Covid-19 -- but it will come back, according to veteran conservationist, Gerry McSweeney.

The former Forest and Bird director and his wife Ann Saunders were two of the first promoters of nature tourism on the West Coast when they bought the run-down roadworkers' camp and Lake Moeraki Motels 30 years ago and turned it into an upmarket lodge.

Nowadays Dr McSweeney sits on the West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board, as the adviser for the NZ Conservation Authority.

The couple own the Arthur's Pass Wilderness Lodge as well, catering to the high end of the market for nature lovers, but business for them, as for so many other tourist operators, has come to a grinding halt with Covid.

"Until it happened it had been extraordinarily good. In February we recorded our biggest sales we've ever had in 30 years at Lake Moeraki.

"Discerning travellers were coming, looking for sustainable tourism with a focus on nature, and people to share it with."

The company normally shuts down for three months in winter, but this year closed a month early after paying out the contracts of its chefs and guides.

Lake Moeraki Lodge traditionally opens in September for the start of the Fiordland crested penguin season, but this year would not open until October.

March and April had been a major loss, Dr McSweeney said.

"So we're coming off a high into a tough 12 months. We have a small number of loyal New Zealand guests who come every year or two for Wilderness Weeks packages -- but nothing can match the overseas numbers; we would be 90% dependent on international tourists."

Half of those numbers were now sent by active-traveller companies Backroads, a walking/cycling/multisport travel business based in California.

Those groups were coming twice a week right through the summer, groups of about 20 people and staying at Moeraki and Arthur's Pass and Franz Josef Glacier and Hokitika, he said.

"We've been liaising with those companies and they love what the West Coast offers and they've got New Zealand high on their list and they will be coming back."

But that was unlikely to happen before there was a vaccine for Covid, he said.

The two wilderness lodges charge at least $500 a night per guest for food and accommodation and are now advertising specials of three nights for $1450 when they reopen in October.

But trying to plug the gap with domestic visitors would be a challenge, Dr McSweeney said.

"Because we are at the opposite end of New Zealand from most of the people, it's always going to be pretty expensive for people from Auckland to come to South Westland., especially when we're heading into a recession."

Low interest rates would also shrink the disposable incomes of many older travellers who relied on their investments, he said.

There would many attractive offers luring New Zealand visitors to the Coast in the coming months, but for niche operators like the McSweeneys in a remote part of the region, that would always be a challenge.

So what does the veteran conservationist make of the "told you so" comments heard on the Coast in recent weeks, from those who say tourism has proved an unreliable contributor to the West Coast economy -- compared to time-honoured industries like mining?

"Patrick Phelps from the Minerals Association who made that comment, he was our nature guide with us for a year, and he knows there is a high quality tourist who is prepared to spend significant amounts of money and have a holiday looking at nature."

Mining also had its serious ups and downs, Dr McSweeney said.

"Let's not forget the global financial crisis hit mining terribly. Coal prices go up and down. And you can't bank on something like garnet-mining south of Hokitika; the PGF promised the monopoly company in the market $10 million to help set up, and even then they decided it wasn't worthwhile.

"Tourism and mining together, and dairy farming and servicing all make for a diversified economy. But tourism is the icing on the cake."

Rather than proving tourism as some sort of failed panacea, Covid had revealed just how much it had been contributing to the Coast economy, Dr McSweeney said.

And after weathering many financial crises over the decades, he was confident it would do so again.

"We started Wilderness Lodge at Moeraki in 1989 after the stockmarket crash. We went to seven banks before we got the BNZ prepared to finance what they saw as a total wildcard. They had us reporting every two weeks.

"We've seen the tough years in '97-98 as a country, and then of course the GFC.

"This (Covid) has obviously been more savage than anything we've seen but the fundamentals are still there."

New Zealand's borders could be reopened gradually to other countries like Australia and Singapore, and it would have to decide how to manage its borders once a vaccine was developed, he said.

"But the West Coast still ticks all the boxes for the sort of place people want to visit -- and they'll be back," Dr McSweeney said.

© Scoop Media

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