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Tourism firm seeks Milford housing fix

Substandard staff accommodation in Milford Sound forces a Queenstown-based company to hatch its own plan.

In 1955, the Government found itself in possession of 10 remote hotels and a dilemma.

While some thought the tourism industry would have potential, officials and politicians didn’t want to pour money into it. Aside from growing opposition to the Government competing with private businesses, the post-war New Zealand mindset centred firmly on farming. But the state-owned hotels were in dire need of investment as they were well below the accepted standard of international travellers, especially Americans.

The Tourist Department’s most extreme problem was the Milford Hotel, writes Margaret McClure in her 2004 book The Wonder Country. “It had to construct and maintain an independent village with accommodation for 48 staff, and set up facilities taken for granted in an urban area: water supply and drainage, a power supply, fire-fighting equipment.”

The Government’s solution was to create the semi-independent Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) – eventually sold to American-based Southern Pacific Hotel Corporation in 1990. But the hangover of that Government hotel empire – in Milford Sound/Piopipotahi, at least – remains.

Milford Sound airport, from above. Image: Apple Maps

Southern Discoveries, a company that itself originated out of THC and is owned by the Rich Lister Skeggs family, has applied to the Department of Conservation to lease land at Milford Sound, in Fiordland National Park, to build accommodation for up to 65 staff. The Queenstown-based tourism company offers cruises at Milford Sound and operates the underwater observatory, cafe and coach services.

The need for new staff digs is acute. Up to 55 of its staff are housed in the oldest building complex in Milford – a leased building at Freshwater Basin owned by Tourism Milford Ltd. It’s a two-storey complex built by THC in the late 1950s as hotel staff quarters.

Described as dilapidated and increasingly expensive to maintain, it has had numerous electrical and plumbing faults in recent years, lease application documents state. The roof needs replacing and the buildings haven’t been painted in 10 years. In places, marine plywood’s replaced rotten weather boards.

Southern Discoveries’ environmental impact assessment says the building is “at an unsuitably low standard and is an increasing obstacle to successful staff recruitment and retention”.

Southern Discoveries CEO Tim Hunter tells Newsroom in an emailed statement: “The Department of Conservation has encouraged us to build in this location as it is the designated staff accommodation area in Milford Sound. We plan to start construction in 2020, subject to receiving consent to occupy the intended sites.”

How Southern Discoveries’ new staff accommodation might look. Image: Wyatt + Gray Architects

The lease, on about 2300 square metres over a term of 60 years, would be on two parcels of bare land, divided by a road, in the Milford township in Cleddau Village – an area designated for staff accommodation near the eastern end of the airport’s runway.

(It seems a pragmatic solution for the company’s urgent accommodation problem. What will be interesting is to see what opposition, if any, the controversial company attracts, and how long DoC takes to make a decision considering it has dragged the chain deliberating for other leases in national parks.)

Southern Discoveries plans to build three accommodation blocks. For season and junior staff, it would build a block with shared bathrooms, cooking area and lounge, with 24 rooms measuring just 12.5 square metres – about the size of an average car park. The company’s team leaders would get their own block, with the relative luxury of 17.7 square metre rooms with ensuite bathrooms. The block for managers and long-term staff would comprise 18 self-contained units of 26 square metres, including its own lounge and cooking area.

Up to 25 construction workers would spend nine months building the staff accommodation, using pre-fabricated panels.

A particular bugbear is car parking. Thirty-three parks should be provided but Southern Discoveries proposes to build just 27. Also, there’s no room for the parks, so it’s suggesting the leased area be extended to include them adjacent to the street.

Tourists would have “moderate” views of the new buildings, which would breach planning rules for boundary setbacks and site coverage. But Southern Discoveries’ experts say that’s justified, given the huge growth of tourism – growth so huge that an ambitious plan is being hatched to transform Milford Sound.

Winding back the clock to the summer of 1955-56, there was a sudden increase in tourist arrivals to nearly 17,000 people. But officials dismissed it as a blip.

McClure’s book notes that Treasury thought at the time tourism’s earnings were negligible and unlikely to improve. “Further growth would be static or slow, reaching 20,000 a year at most and earning £3 million by the end of the decade.”

How gobsmacked those officials would be now, with visitor arrivals to New Zealand pushing four million a year, and international visitors spending $11.2 billion here while on holiday.

Submissions on Southern Discoveries’ application close on July 1.

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