The loss of international tourism has hit the West Coast hard, amid population decline and a wider battle to keep jobs in the area. Alex Braae spent several days driving down the coast to cover the election.
The Owen River Tavern just north of Murchison has bilingual signs alongside the usual trapping of a bustling country pub. They’re there in recognition of the fact that, once upon a time, much of the clientele were tourists from East Asian countries who made a stop there on a trip up or down the West Coast.
When I pulled in on a Saturday evening the car park was empty and none of the attached motel rooms were occupied. The campground, down the hill and next to the river, was deserted. I asked the proprietor if it was unusually quiet tonight, and she said it had been ever since Auckland went into level three, and the flow of tourists from the city was cut off. The regional borders had reopened by then, but the people hadn’t come back.
I organised a spot to park the Jucy van for the night (there was no competition for spots) and settled in at the pub with a beer and a feed, expecting to be able to pester a few locals for their views on the upcoming election. Not one other person set foot in the pub that night. Feeling bad for their bottom line, I got another beer.
It was an introduction to a regional economy that is going through immense difficulty right now. Before Covid, the West Coast was already pretty hard up, with close to zero population growth, economic growth rates behind those of the rest of the country, severe infrastructure challenges, and a vulnerability to weather and natural disasters.
But with tourism making up about 15% of the region’s economy in 2019, the impact of Covid-19 – particularly the closing of borders – has hit particularly hard. The wage subsidy has come to an end, and a lot of business won’t still be around in a year.
The impetus to go to the West Coast came from an invite to a Meet the Candidates event in Punakaiki, where the world famous pancake rocks can be found. In her note, journalist and local Teresa Wyndham-Smith mentioned that Jucy vans had in the recent past been “a bright green symbol of quite a few pertinent issues”.
Because while tourism provided a welcome economic boost for towns and businesses across the stretched out region, and some tourists had been considerate guests, others had caused problems. Freedom campers were an irritation for many, both because of the rubbish they sometimes left behind and their tendency to spend little on local accommodation. Large tourism volumes also placed pressure on infrastructure, particularly roads and public toilet facilities, with a relatively small ratepayer base to cover the costs.
Punakaiki itself is one of several places that is coming through 2020 in reasonable shape. The opening of the Paparoa Track as a Great Walk earlier this year has given plenty of New Zealanders a reason to come down for the first time, or return for the first time in many years. The lack of international tourists means those New Zealanders who regard the great outdoors as something of a birthright have a bit more room to breathe.
Five hours to the south in Haast, I got talking to a woman from New Plymouth in the pub who had spent the last three weeks in a campervan. She and her partner had booked it as soon as the country moved out of level four, taking advantage of extraordinarily cheap deals to tick the trip off their bucket list. She said before they arrived they’d had no idea how beautiful the West Coast is.
Places that don’t rely heavily on tourism are coming through it all OK. Hari Hari, for example, is a small community surrounded by good land for dairy farming, so there hasn’t been much of an economic hit. But I was told at the Pukeko Cafe on the main street that the severe cutbacks in Intercity bus services were hard to deal with. There used to be a bus stopping there every day, sometimes with as many as 50 people getting off and coming in to buy something. Now it’s only every couple of days, and only a few people on each.
Up and down the length of the coast, it was impossible to escape the feeling of emptiness. Vacancy signs were out at almost every single motel and hotel. On the roads, even with the extensive network of one-lane bridges around the Coast, there was almost never a need to stop for other traffic.
Haast is always quiet in winter, to the point where a lot of shops just close for the season. Brian Adams at the Santana gift shop said in many years there was little point in staying open in the coldest months. But in mid-September this year, at the start of whitebaiting season, it was still quiet. November is often among the busiest months for the town, and Adams is concerned that it just won’t happen this year.
“We’ve surprisingly had as good a winter as we’ve ever had. A lot of campervan people tripping around. But November is just six weeks away, and I just cannot see it picking up, you know? If you want to hear some moaning and groaning come back in six weeks.
“I know the motel guys – they’re only getting two or three people a night, and long term that’s just not sustainable,” he added. There were stories around town of massive layoffs of accommodation workers when Covid hit, and seemingly almost no new hires.
Adams’ shop sells primarily possum fur, merino wool and honey, and also has Mandarin writing on the door. The international market was crucial to his business. While the borders are shut, he doesn’t see a way for the town to survive on domestic tourism alone. And for Adams personally, the pandemic has put paid to his plan to work one more summer before going into semi-retirement.
Over the course of a Sunday, two candidate forums showed two very different sides of the West Coast. The first was held in the Punakaiki DOC hut, an inventive venue that saw a vibrant contest of ideas. Sitting in, it felt like being part of a lively and tight-knit community that would be able to come up with clever ways of overcoming challenges.
Later that evening, the same 12 candidates sat in a long row of chairs in a mostly-empty NBS Theatre in Westport. The speeches largely fell flat, and the interjections from a lone heckler had a nastier, meaner tone. Of those who were there, most were getting on in years. Even though Westport isn’t doing too badly at the moment, the meeting gave the sense of a place fading away.
Industry has suffered a lot in the Buller district, the northernmost part of the West Coast region. It culminated with the closure of the Cape Foulwind cement works in 2016, and the accompanying job losses.
For the region as a whole, tourism was meant to be part of a future of things actually getting better. But that only works if there’s a wider economic benefit for whole communities, with smaller operators and ancillary services also getting their share.
At both meetings, there was implicit criticism of how the government has gone about holding the tourism industry up amid the Covid closure, particularly through the Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme – basically a series of grants aimed at protecting tent-pole operations after the closure of international borders. Labour’s Damien O’Connor was questioned at both meetings about whether the small businesses that support tourism up and down the country would survive.
“I think the reality is that some might not make it through there, because we simply don’t have the volume of people. There has been some support for significant businesses, they’re big ones in specific locations to keep the big players alive,” O’Connor told the meeting in Westport.
He also said that when borders reopen, “we have to ensure we have what you might call high-value tourists. They have more money, they’re prepared to travel further and spend more – that I think is the reset that we’ll get.
“I think many small businesses will be in a better position to provide them with attractions. In fact the larger players that have relied on large volumes from places like China, they might struggle to actually get up and running. But it’s going to be really hard work until that time.”
Over both meetings, the audience was presented with a range of other ideas for economic development. The Act Party’s William Gardner wanted to rebuild mining on the coast, particularly with the price of gold at record highs. Independent candidate Cory Aitken called for massive infrastructure investments, particularly in rail, to make the region a more attractive place to live and do business. Both NZ First candidate Jackie Farrelly and Outdoors Party candidate Luke King talked up the potential for a fur industry, based on training a generation of possum trappers to end the reliance on 1080. Each idea had a visionary element, along with practical flaws.
At the Punakaiki meeting, National’s Maureen Pugh talked about the importance of a government that has an economic plan. She said government policy decisions had been “stripping the flesh” off small communities on the coast, and criticised decisions that had slowed down the coal mining industry.
“I believe we can have both. We can have the minerals that we have here that are rich to us, but also over time reduce our carbon footprint,” said Pugh, before pivoting to talk about improvements in carbon capture technology. “So now we hear that we’re going to be moving towards banning coal. But without that energy source, or an alternative, we’re left very vulnerable in terms of our economy.”
Even with the best technology in the world, though, the West Coast is already starting to feel the effects of climate change. Seaside towns like Hector and Granity have invested heavily in holding back the tides, but as sea level rises continue, inundation is inevitable.
I drove out of the West Coast early in the morning through the Haast Pass, because a heavy storm was forecast to roll in off the sea. I didn’t want to get caught in any flooding. The winding, steep road out was slow in the rain, but dramatic and beautiful when it gave way to mist.
Over time, it’s predicted that the storms on the Coast will become wetter and more intense, putting incredible pressure on the vulnerable road network, among other infrastructure. With little economic salvation on the horizon, life will get harder. In a region already seeing population decline, the question will be how many coasters stay in their rugged, difficult stretch of paradise.
Alex Braae’s travel down the West Coast was made possible thanks to the support of Jucy, who have given him a Cabana van to use for the election campaign, and Z Energy, who gifted him a full tank of gas via Sharetank.