End of the adventure in the adventure capital

Normally heaving year-round, Queenstown has ground to an eerie halt as Covid-19 cases rise and tourism income plummets, reports Paul Taylor.

On a hill behind Queenstown's coronavirus Covid-19 community testing centre, the resort's iconic Skyline gondola sits motionless.

More than 17 million people are estimated to have ridden the gondola since it was launched back in 1967, becoming the symbol of a former gold rush town revitalised by the tourist dollar.

Now its 35 cabins are packed away indefinitely, while chains wrap round the door handles of the nearby Fergburger restaurant, and the historic TSS Earnslaw steamer rests next to Steamer Wharf.

Fergburger is all chained up. Photo: Paul Taylor

At Queenstown Airport, security guards play catch on the apron.

Before Covid-19, the airport's expansion plans acted as a lightning rod for community dissatisfaction about the unchecked growth of tourism. On Thursday, Air New Zealand dropped Queenstown from its skeleton domestic schedule.

This is a town that has been mothballed.

Downtown is usually like some South Pacific holiday version of Tokyo's famous Shibuya Crossing, with thousands of people strolling around the bay, or boarding buses out to the AJ Hackett Bungy Dome or Milford Sound.

People chill in outdoor restaurants and bars, watching jetboats spin in the water and tandem paragliders float overhead. Three million people visit per year.

Now the streets are eerily empty, save for the odd walker, or small bubble-appropriate groups of people.

A much-publicised residents' party at Queenstown's Deco Backpackers on Monday appears to have been an anomaly. Most of the action, what action there is, has moved to the suburbs, where the majority of the town's 20,000 permanent residents live.

Lifelong Queenstowner and tourism industry leader Richard Thomas is one of them, spending lockdown in the Kelvin Heights suburb. On Sunday, he let his wife and children shave his hair into a punk-rock mohawk for some lockdown levity.

"The lockdown has been quite pleasant in some ways, although it's frustrating looking at the lake, glass-carved, sunny days, one of Queenstown's biggest assets, and not being able to get out on it.

"But everyone seems to be abiding by the rules and engaging with each other, with a wave and a smile across the road or walking track. In some ways we're more connected because there's more time to say 'hi'."

The TSS Earnslaw at a deserted Steamer Wharf. Photo: Paul Taylor

As chairman of regional tourism organisation Destination Queenstown, and a director of Bookme Ltd, Skyline Enterprises and other companies, he's seen the town go through ups and downs.

"It is strange at the moment,” he says, "but if you look back to the shoulder seasons of the 80s and early 90s, the town used to shut up shop for three or four weeks and people would go away on holiday.

"There were no tourists then."

In Queenstown's other burgeoning suburbs, such as Lake Hayes Estate, Shotover Country and Arthurs Point, leisurely strolls, bike riding and dog walking have replaced snaking rush-hour traffic and adventure.

Neighbours are chatting to each other at distance, while parents urge young children to keep two metres away from other families and dogs.

Gary Livesey has spent almost 12 years in Queenstown's busiest spots, as co-owner and general manager of The World Bar and Yonder.

Now, with a nine-month-old son to look after, he is staying local in Arthurs Point.

"It's incredibly weird how quiet it is, but we're more focused on trying to keep the business alive, doing what we can from home, talking to suppliers, rents and stuff.

"Out here in the suburbs it is beautiful. Just going for a walk around the block, there's an old-school community feel."

It's been no easy ride for either Yonder or The World Bar. Yonder went public with the fact it was visited by Queenstown's first Covid-19 case in early March and closed for a two-day deep clean. The original World Bar burned down in a massive fire in 2013.

Still, both businesses have managed to keep on all their staff through the wage subsidy, while being closed for the lockdown.

Elsewhere, the resort's many walking trails are busy, so much so the Queenstown Trails Trust has warned people to keep their distance from each other.

Queenstown Lakes District has 53 cases of Covid-19 and the district's mayor Jim Boult felt it necessary to remind people yesterday: "This isn’t a summer holiday."

After the gold rush in the 1860s, the town's population dwindled to just 190 by 1900. It remains to be seen whether Covid-19 will have a relative impact on the town, which had planned to spend $1 billion on infrastructure to cope with mass tourism.

"There are so many unknowns, and whatever we think, it will probably change,” says Thomas. “There will be conversations around what tourism looks like in the future, but it's probably too early to have those yet."

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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