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The red crater of Mount Tongariro, an active volcanic vent in New Zealand. Picture: 123RF/PRESTONIA
The red crater of Mount Tongariro, an active volcanic vent in New Zealand. Picture: 123RF/PRESTONIA

New Zealand is preparing to throw open its borders after more than two years — and there may never be a better time to visit.

Tourism operators are rehiring guides, dusting out souvenir shops and getting ready to welcome back international visitors, who have to provide proof of vaccination and a negative predeparture test. But they do not expect a rapid return to the old normal, when hordes of foreigners packed the most popular sites and stretched infrastructure to breaking point.

In fact, the government wants to move away from the mass tourism that trampled New Zealand’s pristine landscapes before the pandemic. It is considering charging foreigners to visit unique areas, and wants to entice more high-spending guests who will stay longer and pay for special experiences. The changes under discussion echo those implemented across the Pacific in Hawaii, where tourists pay fees to visit fragile natural sites in an effort to make tourism more sustainable.

Milford Sound, once dubbed the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ by the writer Rudyard Kipling, will most likely be devoid of crowds this winter.

For now those issues are not so pressing. Places like Milford Sound, an otherworldly corner of New Zealand’s South Island famed for its rugged beauty, will most likely be devoid of crowds during the upcoming winter season. With its sheer cliffs, cascading waterfalls and inky fiord, Milford was once dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” by the writer Rudyard Kipling. 

“Pre-Covid, there were close to 900,000 visitors to Milford a year,” says Mark Quickfall, owner of Totally Tourism, which operates a range of adventure and sightseeing businesses on the South Island. “We would be lucky to have 20% of that at the moment. Destinations will be under a lot less pressure. Tourists will get a great experience.”

There is excitement and relief at the revival of tourism, which before the pandemic generated more foreign income for New Zealand than its dairy industry. In 2019 it directly contributed 5.6% to annual GDP and employed 8.1% of the country’s workforce.

Still, competition for travellers will be intense. Look no further than Australia, which began opening its borders in February but has yet to experience a significant increase in visitors.

Both Australia and New Zealand rely heavily on Chinese tourists, who are unlikely to be allowed to leave their country until 2023. There is also reluctance to commit to long-haul travel among US tourists, which represent the other significant share of the countries’ tourism economies.

Many travellers may also wait until the summer season begins in October.

Sutherland Falls near Milford Sound. Picture: MATTHEW BROCKETT/BLOOMBERG
Sutherland Falls near Milford Sound. Picture: MATTHEW BROCKETT/BLOOMBERG 

The Tourism Export Council, which represents inbound operators, forecasts that in the coming year arrivals will be just more than half of pre-Covid-19 numbers. By 2025, it predicts 3.2-million annual overseas visitors — a number that would still fall short of the 3.9-million who came in 2019.

“The opening of borders isn’t a silver bullet to recovery. There are lots of things that need to come into play, and we anticipate a really slow and steady return to a new normal. It’s going to take some time,” says Rebecca Ingram, CEO at Tourism Industry Aotearoa, an industry body that represents operators across the country.

One issue will be airlines reintegrating routes to New Zealand into their schedules. Hawaiian Airlines has announced flights from Honolulu will resume in July, while Air New Zealand has restarted services to the US and plans a nonstop flight (one of the world’s longest, at 17 hours 35 minutes) from New York starting in September. Another hurdle will be rebuilding the local tourism workforce, which has shed about 65,000 employees since 2019 — including many migrants who have left the country.

Small towns and remote destinations frequently suffered the most. The popularity of the Tongariro Crossing — a hike across an active volcanic landscape in the central North Island — proved too much for toilet facilities, resulting in human waste being left beside the track. The sewage treatment system at the South Island town of Franz Joseph was unable to handle the crowds of visitors to the nearby glacier.

That in turn was undermining the clean, green image New Zealand uses to market itself to the world. Enter the Hawaii-like policy proposals.

“High-value, high-quality visitors give back more than they take,” Nash said. “They are environmentally conscious and seek to offset carbon emissions. They are respectful of local communities and cultures.”

We have no ambition to go back to pre-Covid times when everything was like a stretched rubber band.
Mark Quickfall, owner of Totally Tourism

Adventure operator Quickfall says if there is a silver lining in Covid-19 it is the opportunity to reset. “One of the things we all agree on is that we have no ambition to go back to pre-Covid times when everything was like a stretched rubber band,” he says. “If we get back to 70%-80% of what we were and have the right-sized business, we will be quite happy with that. And deliver a good, quality product.”

New amid the pandemic are the Carlin hotel in Queenstown and the Park Hyatt in Auckland, both of which command striking waterfront views from balconied suites in their respective destinations. The Carlin is more intimate, with a total capacity of just 50 guests, spread out among mini apartments with as many as four bedrooms. (The largest ones have hot tubs on their private terraces, which face picturesque Queenstown Bay and mountain-backed Lake Wakatipu.) The Park Hyatt, meanwhile, is a more urban option: it sits in the middle of Wynyard Quarter, a revitalised harbour-front neighbourhood packed with restaurants and green spaces.

Robertson Lodges, long a standard-setter for luxury accommodation tucked among New Zealand’s most jaw-dropping landscapes, is still a go-to for five-star adventures. Upon reopening, it has added helicopter fly-fishing day trips you can take from either Matakauri Lodge, in Queenstown, or its more iconic Farm at Cape Kidnappers, nestled on cliffs above the stunning Hawke’s Bay coastline. The waters where the choppers touch down have been practically untouched for the last few years, and are teeming with trout.

Don’t fancy yourself an angler? Go heli-drinking instead. The distillers at Mt Fyffe and the adventure operator Altitude both had the same idea when they decided to each kick-start day trips that send groups of four to meet with award-winning gin producers whose operations are outside remote mountain and gold mining towns; it is the type of experience you can have only in New Zealand.

So are Great Walks. These epic trails are a signature way to experience the outdoors, spanning deep limestone gorges and vast valleys. Newly added to the official list is Paparoa Track, traversing about 55km along the west coast of South Island. It cuts through karst formations and ancient forests, with overnight options for both committed walkers and mountain bikers along the way.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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