Visiting Queenstown as the country came out of lockdown last year, George Driver encountered a place ‘filled with bargain prices, eerie streets, fear and hope’. Now, with a third of the country in lockdown and the trans-Tasman bubble long burst, he returns to see if the town still has a pulse.
Businesses are “on their knees”, Queenstown’s mayor declared last month, and Auckland’s lockdown may sound a death knell for the town. There would be no tourism until Christmas and now even that prediction looks optimistic, as delta’s tentacles spread south.
I was in Queenstown 18 months ago to watch as it emerged from lockdown. With the borders closed indefinitely, the town teetered, the streets deserted. But in the evening the place came to life in celebration and hope that perhaps life would return to normal once more. In the months following, domestic tourism surged. The country came to Queenstown. But without international tourists it still wasn’t enough. After summer, a third of businesses in the CBD expected to close in the following months. A live cross to a cold looking mayor Jim Boult, lakeside, became something of a weekly fixture on our TV screens.
Finally the much-awaited trans-Tasman bubble opened. It lasted three months before sputtering in July to a close.
Then delta arrived, closing the country in the height of the ski season. It’s now been more than nine weeks with Auckland in lockdown, 13 weeks since the trans-Tasman bubble burst and it will likely be months before visitors from either place return. The school holidays have come and gone, leaving a long hole until December – but even then, who will be left to come to Queenstown?
And so, driving through the Kawarau Gorge this week I expected to again find, alongside the stunning scenery, the same deserted streets and pervasive anxiety I encountered 18 months earlier.
The good thing, at least, about a tourism town in crisis is that you can always find a park. Or so I thought. My go-to carpark beside Queenstown Gardens had become a construction site. On I drove. And on, and on. Eventually I nabbed what looked to be the last carpark before Glenorchy and began the long lakeside stroll into town.
On the outskirts, already my anticipatory dread began to lift. There was a buzz. The playground in St Omer Park was pumping. Young people lolled in the grass or perched on rocks on the lakefront, reading, flirting, socialising. There was a European backpacker – long Nordic-blond hair and a youthful fuzz of a beard – lounging beside an outsized pack (where did he come from?). Out on the lake, kayakers dawdled along in the wake of the Kawarau Jet and the propellers of a pencil-thin Air New Zealand plane droned overhead.
On the esplanade, the bar terraces at the Earnslaw wharf were already half full, sporting a diverse crowd of holidaymakers and locals spending up on a midday beer. Not a death knell to be heard.
Along the waterfront, more construction. Beach Street was being turned into a new pedestrian zone and a dozen fluro workers stood watching someone dig a hole. All up, Queenstown got $85m in shovel-ready funding last year. There were new walkways being built, plants being planted and street furniture was going in that, according to the council, “links to mana whenua value of ‘Oraka’, meaning rest and re-cooperation”. The whine of power tools and rumble of diesel engines were pervasive through every street.
Further along the waterfront, Queentown’s famous singing dog was still howling a tune, along with two other buskers, and dozens of people lounged lakeside like it was the mid summer holidays. On a Wednesday. In October.
At this point I really began to doubt my own perceptions. After having a baby I had spent five months in a form of self-imposed lockdown in Clyde. Had it been so long I was simply unable to judge whether a town was booming or dying?
Through the pedestrian mall, again, tables of people enjoying the sunshine and a beer – not full, but busier, I’d bet, than any other regional centre in the country. At 1pm. On a Wednesday. In October.
But behind shopfront doors I found the anxiety I came looking for. I went into a tourism visitor centre – the kind you find in every tourism town in NZ (they asked me not to name it). Inside, after helping a middle-aged couple from Rotorua find the nearest bar, Pan Li told me the town was extremely quiet. Incredibly, he said that when the trans-Tasman bubble was still going and the ski season was under way, June and July had been busier than 2019. The tourism boom town was actually busier during a global pandemic, with almost all of its tourism markets shut out. But since then – bubble burst, lockdown, etc – business had plummeted and Li had decided to leave town.
“Tourism has hurt me too much,” he said.
Li moved to NZ from China to study tourism at the University of Otago and had been working in the industry in Queenstown for seven years. He worked his way up to a good job, managing the Chinese market for Ngāi Tahu Tourism, but when Covid hit he was made redundant, along with 300 others. He had hopped through tourism jobs since, but had had enough of the industry’s doom and gloom.
“Every morning I hear from businesses discounting prices, people losing their jobs. It’s so hard for businesses. A lot of business owners have had to work a second job. And every day on the news the future is so uncertain. It just leaves me feeling really bad.”
But it’s also tough for staff, surviving in one of New Zealand’s most expensive places, working in an industry with low wages and immense uncertainty, he said. “It was already the most expensive place to live, but now there are even lower wages and less hours. I like tourism. But I need to survive.”
So he has decided to move to Clyde, taking up a job at a bank in Alexandra. He moves this weekend. Despite leaving, he said he’s optimistic about Queenstown’s future. “When I came to Queenstown I had to start from nothing. It might take time, but things can rebuild.”
A few doors down I popped into Juicy Cruise – a tour operator, formerly part of Juicy Rentals. Sales manager Kate Danaher came to NZ on a working holiday from Ireland six years ago and never left. “I loved it here – now I’m a permanent resident.”
She’s just bought a house in town – a phenomenal achievement considering the median price hit $1.3m last month. She’s optimistic (obviously) about the town’s future.
“I think it’s a good opportunity to reflect,” Danaher said. “Everyone agrees the kinds of tourism numbers we were getting weren’t sustainable. We’ve got to work together to make the future better, because it will be a long, long time before we get anywhere near those numbers again. But it’s been a good opportunity for Kiwis to come and explore.”
While the town’s down, it’s not out, she said. “It still has a good atmosphere and feel. There are businesses closing, but there are also businesses opening up. It’s a really resilient community – though a lot of people have been through the hardest time they’ve ever had.”
The town also sees vaccination as offering a future. Danaher said people were going door to door, encouraging people to get the jab – 95% of the region have had at least one dose. “It’s not just for business, for me it’s the only way I’ll get home.”
At the same time businesses are hoping for a plan from the government, she said – a target and something to hope for.
With the remainder of the afternoon I wanted to track down two Marias. Last year, at The Remarkable Sweet Shop and DF Souvenirs, I met Maria Rodriguez and Maria Delacruz, both manning empty stores and grateful for jobs, both terrified of losing them and their work visas and being sent home to Mexico and the Philippines.
“I’ve told my son we might have to go back to the Philippines and he cried,” Rodriguez had told me.
At the sweet shop there were three staff working, and even a handful of customers. But Maria Rodriguez was gone. “She went home to Mexico a month ago,” I was told. “She missed her family too much.” So she had left – but of her own volition.
Around the corner at DF Souvenirs I was told Maria Delacruz had also left just two weeks ago, but for another job – “something to do with computers”. So she too had survived.
The worker there – a young woman from the UK who asked not to be named – said the year had its ups and downs, but the greatest relief was the government’s announcement that migrants who have lived in NZ during Covid would be eligible for residency. Now if workers lost their jobs, they wouldn’t be sent home – the Marias of Queenstown had a reprieve.
“That’s been the biggest relief,” she said. “A lot of my friends have had to leave.”
But her manager, Sarah (“just Sarah, thanks”) sounded a more dismal tone. Sarah came to Queenstown on a two week holiday 18 years ago and never left. She said business in town had been worse than last year after lockdown.
“It was good before delta – not quite the same as before, but almost. Now we’re just waiting for the December school holidays.”
But back on the waterfront there was an air of celebration. Hundreds of people had come to the lakeshore after work and it was like a festival had started – people eating, drinking, swimming and chain smoking durries like it was 1953. Young, old, families – languages and accents the world over. It was the most idyllic scene in one of the world’s most beautiful towns. The place where people come on holiday and never leave. I would move tomorrow – if I could afford it.
If Queenstown was dying, then the rest of the country had died long ago.
So, how to reconcile the scene before me with the doom and gloom conveyed through the news?
There’s no doubt many businesses have had a tough time – albeit coming after an enormous boom time. Figures from Infometrics show GDP in the district contracted 1.9% in the year to June – a time when the country’s GDP surged 4.2%. Consumer spending had dropped 5.6% overall – on the other hand, domestic tourism spending had surged 52% on pre-pandemic levels. Some businesses have been decimated and the unemployment rate has surged from 1.1% before the pandemic to 3.8% in June, the highest level in a decade. On the other hand, that’s still lower than the national average, which was then 4.7%.
Ministry of Social Development figures show there were just 35 people on job seeker support in Queenstown in November 2019 – in a district of 39,000 people. The number peaked in October last year at 486, declining to 318 last month. It was an enormous surge, but compare that to the Whanganui District – a district of similar size – which had 1478 people on the benefit in 2019 and 1686 last month. Or Whakatane, which has a slightly smaller population, but with 1460 unemployed before the pandemic and 1854 last month – and a place where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country.
So some in Queenstown are doing it tough. The next few months will be hard for many. And yes, it should get some help to get through. But I can’t help but think about these other towns, who were struggling before the pandemic, and are now doing much worse and with less help – and may be on the brink of a major health crisis as we “learn to live with the virus”. We don’t tend to see the mayor of Kawerau on TV each week in a live cross. And places like Kawerau don’t tend to get millions of dollars to spend on outdoor furniture with links to the mana whenua value of Oraka.
Sitting in the sun on the shore in Queenstown on a Wednesday evening in October, I felt no pangs of anxiety for the fate of the place. It was like summer had arrived already. Its biggest drawcard and money maker – one of the most beautiful settings in the world – was going nowhere. The people will come when they can. Others aren’t so lucky.