Dominion Road. Photo: Michael Andrew
Dominion Road. Photo: Michael Andrew

BusinessMarch 17, 2020

How a global pandemic has impacted a single strip of Dominion Road

Dominion Road. Photo: Michael Andrew
Dominion Road. Photo: Michael Andrew

Tourism and hospitality industries are buckling under the weight of the Covid-19 response. With the government set to announce a relief package, small businesses on Auckland’s Dominion Road describe just how needed it is.

At a small travel brokerage on Dominion Road, five or six staff members sit at their desks taking calls. The phone rings constantly in the office which has all the classic features of a travel agency – the large posters of tropical beaches, the life-size cutout of an Emirates hostess smiling out from her spot on the rear wall. Her bright expression looks out of place here, contrasting drastically with the grave faces of the travel agents as they attend to phone call after phone call, helping customers cancel their trips.

“We are not booking anything. No one is going anywhere,” says Mohammed Khan, the managing director of Travel 2000.

“All the staff there, since last week they are just providing the cancelling or refund process.”

Of all the economic victims of the Covid-19 outbreak, tourism has emerged as one of the most gravely wounded. In response to the virus’s rapid spread in Europe and the US, governments have implemented unprecedented travel restrictions and border control measures to try to smother the outbreak.

Inevitably, global tourism has shrivelled, bringing businesses like Travel 2000 to the edge of collapse. Yesterday new travel measures came into force, requiring anyone arriving in New Zealand to self-isolate for 14 days. While Mohammed says the measures are needed, he worries they could spell the final blow for small tourism businesses like his.

“I’m so upset that this is happening. We are in shambles to be honest.”

Mohammed Khan. Photo Michael Andrew

With no revenue and yet still needing to pay rent and staff salary, Mohammad sent a letter to his landlord requesting a six-month rent-free period. His landlord instead told him to contact his insurer, which advised him that the onslaught of  travel cancellations connected to Covid-19 was not covered in the policy. With customers continuing to cancel bookings and request refunds, Mohammad says his staff are growing nervous about where it could lead.

“They’re worried, they’re so scared that we might just do an announcement to say look we’re sending you home, we’re closing down. What do we do? It’s a very big impact on us.”

Travel 2000 sits on the Balmoral end of Dominion Road, near an acclaimed cluster of mainly Chinese restaurants. As with tourism, New Zealand’s hospitality industry has been hit hard by Covid-19 fear, with Chinese restaurants hit harder than most. This usually lively street is noticeably sedate.

However, some of the more popular restaurants are in a comparatively good position to weather the storm. At Barilla Dumpling, a staff member says that while business has certainly slumped since the travel restrictions came into force, the fall has been cushioned in part by a loyal clientele that have continued to dine out.

“Business is slow but we are better than other businesses because most of our customers are Kiwi,” she says. The restaurant has been able to retain all its staff, something that she says other Chinese restaurants, particularly in the CBD, haven’t been able to do.

Likewise at nearby New Flavour restaurant, a worker says that while there has been fewer Chinese customers, New Zealanders are still turning up for lunch and dinner.

It’s not as easy for the lesser known restaurants, though. Down the road, Wuhan Café is empty. Its owner sits behind the counter lamenting the loss of the Chinese students that made up the bulk of her clientele. Because her restaurant offers a unique brand of cuisine that few people know outside of her home city of Wuhan (unavoidably associated with the rise of the Covid-19 virus) she says she’s having trouble attracting customers. Struggling to pay rent and other expenses, she intends to tack pictures of her meals up on the windows or otherwise start preparing more “Kiwi” dishes to bring in new people.

Wuhan Cafe. Photo: Michael Andrew

Across the road in Relianz Forex, the director Giri sits with an associate; the two men quietly discussing how they can continue running a travel business that no longer has any customers.

“People had already booked quite far in advance. They’ve cancelled it,” he says.

“It’s bad. There’s been a major problem, there’s a sense of fear and uncertainty.”

While all form of travel has been affected, Giri says the Covid-19 restrictions are taking a particular toll on weddings in India, which are usually planned months in advance at considerable expense.

“There are guys who have planned their weddings in April and they have to defer it. All the rooms that they booked for their guests – that has to be cancelled. It’s going to be a big loss.”

While Giri has been desperately searching for a way to retain his employees and protect his business, he says the constant developments surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak have made the situation incredibly complex and uncertain. Being a foreign exchange service, the business has suffered from the decrease in international visitors and two of the other Relianz branches will be closing to cut costs.

“It’s like your body is burning from the inside because you don’t know the answer to various questions,” he says.

“You don’t even know what tomorrow is going to be like, things have changed so fast and so drastically that you’re left in a situation where you do not know how you could handle yourself.”

Today the government announces details of a “business continuity package” promised to include support for those most affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. Giri says he just doesn’t know whether it will be any help to him, and if it does, whether it will come in time.

“We do hope that there is some sort of respite and that there is some sort of feel-good factor that comes to make us smile again.”

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