After moving back home to Clyde in Central Otago for the Covid-19 lockdown, George Driver wonders how the tiny town on the edge of Queenstown’s tourism boom and bust will survive.
Growing up, Clyde always felt like a quiet backwater. Cut off from the main road and in the shadow of the 100m concrete wall of the Clyde Dam, it would only momentarily reawaken each year during the Christmas break, when people from Dunedin and Invercargill would come to escape the ever-present southerly on the coast and crowd into the campground and the cinder block cribs that make up half the town. The rest of the year Clyde would sit slumbering.
But over the past decade the town has come to life in a way not seen since the gold rush. Queenstown boomed and as tourists slowly started to explore beyond Arrowtown and Coronet Peak they discovered Clyde’s historical charm.
A wealthy couple from Auckland spent millions restoring the iconic 150-year-old Oliver’s restaurant and it became a destination again. Bike shops sprang up on the back of the popularity of the Otago Central Rail Trail. A new strip of shops opened with art galleries, a gelatery, a fashion boutique. The fish and chip shop closed its old tearooms, threw out the white-net curtains and started selling $14 gourmet burgers. A boutique cinema even opened – in a town of 1000 people.
When I returned for visits in my 20s I found something else I’d never seen before – people in the streets. Happy wealthy people, taking photos, sipping flat whites outside the old Bank of New Zealand cafe, or craft beer from the new microbrewery across the road at Oliver’s.
Then house prices skyrocketed. New subdivisions went in and were promptly filled with retiring city folk who couldn’t afford to buy in Wanaka or Queenstown, or were just looking for a quiet spot to see out their years. The only pub in town closed, to the ire of its patrons (a local parked his digger outside in protest), replaced with yet another bike shop.
It had become the Matakana of the South. It had become gentrified.
But two months ago, after returning from overseas, I rushed back to Clyde for the lockdown and watched as the fate of the region transformed. The major tourism businesses of Central Otago began to shed staff in the hundreds. Queenstown airport, the gateway to the region, closed. Concern about over-tourism flipped to fear for survival.
With few locals to keep the money flowing in Clyde and the future of Queenstown looking more terrifying than the Kawarau bungy, how will my hometown survive? Talking to local businesses, no one has an answer yet. What is certain is everyone has missed out on six weeks of one of the busiest times of year, when thousands come for Central Otago’s autumn colours, and no one knows when tourists will return.
“We had a really good summer that ground to a screeching halt,” says Meredith Kerrisk, who runs the 120 year old Dunstan House hotel. The Cobb & Co horse coach used to leave from here on its run between the gold fields and Dunedin – “Good Stabling” is still stencilled on the building’s schist wall outside.
Meredith bought the hotel two years ago, leaving her job working for the Central Otago District Council, while her husband, Ian, left his job as the local cop.
“It was looking like we were finally going to be making a living this year, instead of just spending money. It happened so quickly. It was a bit devastating watching bookings disappear. But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
They plan to reopen the business under level two and to retain their 10 staff. But will there be customers?
“I really don’t think anyone knows. But we opened the business out of nothing. We’ll open our doors this week and see what happens. I think it will take a while to ramp up but I think this time next year we will be busy again and we will have forgotten all about this.”
Next door, in the 80-year-old Bank of New Zealand building, the new owners of the Bank Cafe are halfway through their first year of business. Wendy Hecht-Wendt took over the cafe in December after working for a decade in a restaurant at a winery in Bannockburn, 30km away. She is also trying to look on the bright side.
“We have to see it as an opportunity, because lots of people don’t have a business and we still do,” Wendy says. “We’ve got to look after local people and be kind.”
The cafe reopened under level 3, running a service window between 9am and 1pm seven days a week. “Most of our customers are older and this was a chance to reconnect with them and it allows us time to develop our protocols and experiment with new dishes.”
And the fate of her eight staff? She says they will do their best. “We are going to try and keep everyone and hope things will pick up in spring and summer.”
But with three cafes on the main street and another two elsewhere in town, she is concerned they might not all survive. “One of us might have to pivot into something else.”
Across the road, Oliver’s restaurant, which takes up half of the main street, is shut. But on the north side of the building The Merchant of Clyde (the cafe arm of the business) has reopened for takeaways and has developed an app for people to click and collect.
“We’ve done that more as a community service and to get things started,” says owner David Ritchie.
The building was opened as a general store to service the gold fields in 1869 and continued under a number of owners for the next 100 years, even housing a vet surgery for a period in the ’60s. But in 1977 Fleur Sullivan opened Oliver’s restaurant and it became an icon. My parents used to bake cakes for the restaurant in the 1970s and, somewhat disturbingly, a nude painting of my mother, which my father painted, used to hang above the grand piano in the dining room. After Fleur sold up in 1997, going on to start the now famous Fleur’s Place in Moeraki, Oliver’s floundered, passing through six owners in 12 years (I perhaps didn’t help – I performed in a covers band there as a teenager, playing Nirvana songs and pretending to be the Kurt Cobain of Clyde). For years it sat empty, waiting for someone with the vision and money to make it into something again.
Oliver’s saviours arrived 10 years ago. David and his wife Andrea invested millions restoring the accommodation and restaurant. They opened a cafe and bar and even a microbrewery, and it became a destination again. Every weekend SUVs filled with day trippers from Queenstown would line the main street.
Despite the challenges, David’s also optimistic people will return. “I have no idea, but I have a level of confidence.”
The town’s many heritage buildings, its climate, small size and location will continue to make it an attractive destination, he says.
“It’s always going to have those things that make it a special place to visit. But it depends so much on the circumstances. The big question is when the country can open up to domestic and international travel, and that decision is out of our hands.”
One positive is that Clyde mostly attracts domestic tourists – it isn’t nearly as exposed to the international market as Queenstown or Wanaka. Although that is changing, with more overseas tourists visiting, particularly from Australia.
“Opening tourism up with Australia would be huge,” David says. “It would help some business that may not otherwise survive.”
The Rail Trail has been a major driver of Clyde’s growth. The 152km cycle trail between Clyde and Middlemarch attracts about 15000 people a year. Clyde resident Clare Toia-Bailey is the facilitator of the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust and says about 40% of cyclists on the trail are from overseas, a proportion that has doubled over the past decade. The B&B’s and cafes on the trail are hoping that Kiwi tourists will help make up for their absence; some businesses are pooling their resources to launch a marketing campaign later this year.
“It’s a mixed bag as to how businesses are doing,” she says. “But there doesn’t seem to be any one closing yet.”
Another cycle trail linking Clyde and Cromwell along Cromwell Gorge is also due to open in November – although it may be delayed by Covid-19 – which could provide a vital boost heading into summer.
“That would mean there are four cycle trails in the region, which is very exciting. Often people who do the Rail Trail return to bike another track here, so it creates another opportunity for that.”
The growth in the number of retirees may also help the town survive the downturn.
Lisa Joyce is part owner of Bike It Now which sells, rents and repairs bikes from a shop in a new strip of commercial buildings behind Oliver’s. Since reopening under level three they’ve been inundated with business from locals.
“We’re booked out for two weeks with repairs,” she says. “We’ve been flat out.”
On the other side of town, further down the Clutha, Gary Ryan is also in his first year of business in Clyde, running the holiday park. Like the bike shop, the campground is lucky to have a loyal clientele.
“We have a lot of regulars, people who have been coming from Dunedin, Gore, Invercargill with their families for 40, 50 years,” Gary says. “It doesn’t really get international tourists.”
The lockdown hit during Easter, when the holiday park was supposed to be booked out. But 10 people stayed during lockdown – a couple of retirees “from up north” and a few backpackers who couldn’t find anywhere else to go.
“We’re doing alright,” he says. “We’ve been in business a long time and you know that things go wrong, you’ve got to have a plan for it. We’re lucky the Christmas period will hold us through until next Christmas. I mean, we’ve lost quite a bit of money, but we’ll find our way through it.’
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.