Fiordland braces for the new normal

Only a small minority of tourists to Milford Sound and its stunning surrounds are from New Zealand, but that will have to change if the region is to recover when the lockdown ends, reports Jim Kayes.

Nonu’s had plenty of walks.

The retriever-collie cross is just back from a 90-minute wander with his owner, Steve Norris, who is sitting in the sun with a cup of coffee when he answers my call.

“Do you have a few minutes for a chat?” I ask.

“I’ve got more than a few minutes,” Norris, the owner of Fiordland Trips and Tramps says.

Normally – if anyone can remember that Kodak distant thing called normal – he would be busy with between 50 and 80 clients being guided by up to nine guides around some of New Zealand’s most stunning walks in the Fiordland region.

Now? Well, last week, he has been flat out processing refunds. This week he has … not much to do.

“The only part of the family that’s happy with Covid-19 is Nonu. And yes, he the dog was named after All Black Ma’a Nonu because he was born during the 2011 World Cup. “He’s had lots of walks.”

Trips and Tramps is just one of many businesses in and around Fiordland that have been hit twice in the past two months. Floods ripped through the region in February, blocking part of the Milford Road and cutting off Milford Sound, and destroying tracks including the hugely popular Milford and Routeburn tracks.

Damage to Milford Road between Te Anau and the Homer Tunnel. The road closure from floods in February had a huge impact on the Fiordland region. Photo: Milford Road Alliance

Now coronavirus has delivered a second blow.

“It kind of feels like Mother Nature ran us over at speed in February with the flooding then reversed back over us in March with the coronavirus,” says Madeleine Peacock, manager of Destination Fiordland.

Peacock says the region is used to taking hits, but this year seems to have caught them flat footed. They hadn’t bounced back like they have in the past and then the coronavirus “hit us for six at what should have been one of the busiest times for us.

Peacock lives in Te Anau and says, with so many people having been laid off or left the district before the lockdown, the town is deserted. “That affects the community, it affects all of us. We all know people who have lost their jobs, they are our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours and it hurts, it hurts a lot.

“And it makes you wonder what our community will look like at the end of it.”

Down and hurting, Fiordland’s business community is nonetheless optimistic that they will recover, and determined they will not go under.

But they need Kiwis to make sure that happens.

From February 3 to March 22 last year, 180,500 people cruised on the Milford Sound. For the same period this year – the dates mark the period from the floods to just before the government-enforced lockdown – 48,200 people took a cruise in one of New Zealand’s most beautiful spots.

That’s a 73 percent decrease that Tim Holland, manager of Milford Sound Tourism, says is phenomenal. The blow is softened only by the fact the season was nearing its end anyway, with businesses going into hibernation earlier than usual. But it is still a hefty financial hit.

“It will be in the many millions of dollars,” Holland says. “It will be in the tens of millions I would think.”

The apparent loss is also slightly tempered by the fact that tourism had enjoyed a huge boom in the past decade, and the curve was going to flatten at some stage anyway.

“A lot of people were getting ready for that,” says Holland. “They were going from growth mode to sustain mode, so we were getting ready for change in tourism, but no one was ready for the entire world to change.”

With the borders closed – and disruption to international travel likely for at least a year to 18 months according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – Holland says there has never been a greater need for New Zealanders to visit their own country.

Of the more than 180,000 that normally cruise Milford Sound, fewer than 10 per cent are Kiwis. “We need people to back their backyard,” says Holland.

Norris guesses he’s refunded about 400 bookings but says there will be more later in the year, when the season would normally begin to pick up again, that he expects to be cancelled too. It is, he says, just a matter of waiting for those emails to land in his inbox.

“It is bleak, there is no other word for it, but we have to get something going as we move forward.”

That something, he says too, is domestic tourism. “We’re a long way from Auckland but people will have missed out on their winter trip to the Islands so hopefully they will want to spend their time and money supporting New Zealand.”

Peacock’s house in Te Anau is next to a helicopter company on the usually busy Milford Road. She admits she’s enjoyed the peace and quiet the lockdown has brought, but is quick to add she’d prefer the hustle and bustle, and noise, of seeing the place return to normal.

“We live in the most beautiful part of New Zealand, so if you are okay mentally and physically and you are not too stressed financially, then it’s a blessing to be able to hang out in this beautiful part of the world for a few weeks. We will recover but there will be a lot of collateral damage.”

Contemplating Nonu’s lead hanging on its hook, Norris knows there are only so many walks he and his pooch can go on. He needs to get back to work. The government’s assistance funding will cover staff wages for a month or so, but after that – well, he doesn’t have a crystal ball.

“It will come right for us, it’s just a matter of when.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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