Queenstown shot again by Shotover Jet closure

More than 100 jobs go in tourist centre Queenstown as part of Ngāi Tahu's 300 layoffs as it suspends its tourism businesses. Paul Taylor reports 

As harbingers go, Ngāi Tahu Tourism's decision to indefinitely close Shotover Jet and likely axe many of its 42 staff is a big one for Queenstown.

The bright red jet boats have been blasting through the tall, tight Shotover River canyons since 1965 and are one of the symbols of the tourist mecca, a must-do activity to tick off on a trip.

Ed Sheeran, Jonah Lomu, Brooke Shields, Hugh Jackman, a fair few Prime Ministers and, of course, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Prince William and Kate Middleton have all been for a spin.

But when the twin V8-powered boats will return to the milky blue-green water again is anyone's guess.

Yesterday, Ngāi Tahu Tourism announced its intention to close its dozen tourism businesses across New Zealand "for the time being". More than 300 of its 500-strong workforce will potentially lose their jobs as a result. A final decision on job losses will be made next month, after consultation with staff.

Ngāi Tahu Holdings chief executive Mike Pohio and Kaiwhakahaere (chair), Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu Lisa Tumahai, in a joint statement on the South Island Māori tribal website, said its tourism company was not immune to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the industry.

"Our tourism businesses, alongside the rest of the industry, no longer have any revenue and even when the industry does eventually re-establish, it is expected to take a long time to recover.

"Therefore, after robust analysis and discussions and with heavy hearts, we share with you our intention to close our tourism businesses for the time being.

"This difficult decision has also resulted in a proposal to significantly downsize our Ngāi Tahu Tourism workforce, with more than 300 kaimahi at all levels potentially losing their jobs as a result.

"We value our kaimahi greatly as they are at the centre of all Ngāi Tahu Tourism is and does, so to be proposing to head down this path is devastating for us – and certainly something we did not envisage a few months ago."

Shotover Jet Limited, Ngāi Tahu Tourism's subsidiary, has been paid $295,243 through the Government's wage subsidy scheme for 42 staff, according to the Government's Work and Income website, which was last updated on Wednesday.

Six of the other subsidiary businesses have been paid $1,006,601 in total. The 14 Trustees in the Ngai Tahu Tourism Trust have been paid $98,414 through the wage subsidy scheme.

As a condition of eligibility, applicants were required to retain named employees for at least the duration of the grant (12 weeks). The subsidy was announced on March 17 and runs until June 7.

It is not known whether Ngai Tahu Tourism are among the 897 that have voluntarily offered to pay back all or some of the taxpayer cash,

Ngāi Tahu Holdings Chief Executive Mike Pohio told Newsroom: "Ngāi Tahu Tourism meets the criteria for entitlement to the wage subsidy and has upheld, and will continue to uphold, its employer obligations.

"As we are undergoing consultation with our kaimahi, we will not be making any further comment relating to the proposed changes."

Among those other six businesses that received subsidies are three Queenstown-based companies. They are Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters, which employs 26 staff (received $179,940) and Dart River Safaris Limited, which employs 45 ($316,332) and Hollyford Valley Walk Ltd, which employs 6 ($42,177).

Two out of three people in Queenstown work in tourism. Photo: Neki Patel

Hollyford Valley Walk Ltd covers both Guided Walks NZ and Hollyford Track. Queenstown Snowmobiles is also based in the resort but no subsidy application appears to have been made for that business.

So, Queenstown could see 119 redundancies from Ngai Tahu Tourism companies alone.

And Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker fears there could be many more.

Walker said he'd written to Finance Minister Grant Robertson calling for more support for tourism businesses, specifically support once the subsidy ends, and for an early announcement on any such support.

Walker said it was distressing to see staff lose their jobs from one of Queenstown's large employers.

“Two out of every three people in Queenstown work in the tourism sector and if there is not more support given soon, it is going to get far worse before it gets better," he said.

“More large scale redundancies will come and even more of the wonderful people in our community will be left jobless.”

He had spoken to dozens of businesses who will have to close their doors unless they receive more support and has also called for Air New Zealand to reinstate scheduled domestic flights to connect the town to Christchurch at Level 3, and then Auckland.

Any more redundancies would lead to more pain in a community already tackling what its mayor Jim Boult has labelled a potential "welfare crisis".

Queenstown Lakes District Council has received more than 8400 requests for help and has so far distributed $600,000 of grocery vouchers through its Emergency Operations Centre. It is not clear how many people have been helped though, as vouchers are given out week after week.

About three-quarters of the requests are from migrant workers, trapped in town without jobs.

On Wednesday morning, QLDC, Salvation Army Queenstown, the Citizens Advice Bureau, and the Queenstown and Wanaka Chambers of Commerce announced they had lobbied the Minister of Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni ,to extend benefits to migrants on essential skills, working holiday and student visas until they are able to be repatriated or placed in new roles.

By the afternoon, the Minister of Civil Defence, Peeni Henare, had announced $30 million for councils and Civil Defence Emergency Management groups across New Zealand to provide food parcels, household goods and emergency accommodation.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the Government is "actively considering further options at present" but on Wednesday neither he, nor Minister Sepuloni, would commit to extending the benefit system to cover migrants.

Lees-Galloway said: "It should be remembered though that people on temporary visas are expected, as a condition of their visa, to hold sufficient funds or an arrangement to return home, and to bring their own resources when they come to New Zealand. They should access these first (e.g travel insurance, money saved for travel).

"However, it is understandable that some people are unable to return home in the current situation and may have used up those resources unexpectedly. They should seek consular support from their home country also, just like New Zealanders need to when overseas. They can also contact MSD and Immigration New Zealand for guidance on getting support."

Temporary migrants are able to access healthcare, including testing, for conditions relating to Covid-19 at this time.

Boult says the migrants will be needed to restart Queenstown's tourism economy, but that could be months away. He estimates international tourists won't return in significant numbers until 2021.

So the industry, like Shotover Jet, is on hold for now. Whether any other major resort businesses follow suit and announce mass redundancies is the next concern.

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