The visitor boom is seeing tourism operator Waitomo Adventures go full steam ahead, with a new adventure centre and day spa to open in December, followed by further development of a 23 ha site.
That’s on the back of its interactive Troll Cave, which is aimed at youngsters along with corporate team building and opened last year.
Waitomo Adventures founder Nick Andreef says the three-storey adventure centre is stage one of a bigger complex with the working name of Waitomo Rock.
Progress Waitomo, a joint venture between the Andreef and Juno families, also has the resource consents for a new bar, restaurant and function centre with a 500-person capacity.
Also in the pipeline for the site is a 70m bungy tower on a restored wetland.
It’s a huge vote of confidence in the future of tourism, and one that builds on 10 years of growing visitor numbers in Waitomo.
“There’s an estimated increase from 450,000 to more than 700,000 tourists coming through Waitomo village now. It’s massive,” says Nick.
That growth is reflected across the region, with visitor spend growing by six percent in the year ending May 2018, pushing it up to $1.542 billion, according to figures from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
Of that, domestic tourists spent $1.156 billion while international visitors spent $365 million.
Waikato has the fifth highest share of the national market, ahead of Rotorua and Bay of Plenty. Hamilton and Waikato Tourism chief executive Jason Dawson says one of the growth areas is international visitors staying overnight in the region for their first or final night, given Waikato’s proximity to Auckland International Airport.
“It is far cheaper and more affordable to start in Waikato. We’ve pushed that in international markets for many years, and the last year it’s starting to pay off.”
The region’s big three attractions are Waitomo, Hobbiton and Hamilton Gardens, and the challenge facing the industry is to broaden the appeal for tourists and keep them staying longer.
Jason points to a developing range of options including River Riders, trails like the Hauraki Rail Trail and Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.
He says they meet a key requirement of modern travellers: authenticity. “Authentic is Sanctuary Mountain – you get to see New Zealand wildlife up close and personal.”
That idea informs the agency’s approach to development in the area, building on a plan which includes a focus on the Waikato River, regional events, and Waikato as home of Kiingitanga.
“It is about looking at our current assets – we have a lot of assets here – and improving the story telling around them,” Jason says. “The Māori aspect is significant, it is a selling point.”
One example is the current piloting of battle re-enactments at Rangiriri by local iwi, supported by Hamilton and Waikato Tourism. Another is the tours by Tahi Rangiawha of Waireinga-Bridal Veil Falls in summer. “He takes them on a guided tour, talks about the medicinal values of the flora and fauna you see there, there is some reenactment, they do waiata at night,” Jason says. “He’s looking at other things like waka tours on our rivers as well.”
It’s not only operators who benefit from the growth, it’s the likes of cafes, restaurants and bus transport companies as well, Jason says. He points to Raglan, where 40 percent of the housing stock is holiday homes.
Meanwhile, commercial guest nights have grown significantly for the region over the last five years.
“But what we’re seeing is it’s starting to plateau, and that’s down to availability. We need two [more hotels]here in Hamilton, we need one in Waitomo, we need one in Raglan, one in Matamata. We need some good, large, high quality accommodation.”
Nick Andreef also points to the need for good quality accommodation as a way of keeping visitors. He believes Waitomo has failed to capitalise on the opportunities from its growth, with just an estimated 17.5 percent of visitors to the area staying overnight.
The village lacks high quality accommodation for the independent travellers that Nick believes are important for the tourism business in New Zealand.
“Think about a couple that have just given me $1200 to go caving for the day.
“They’ve often had what they describe as the best experience that they had in New Zealand or even in their lives. They’ve been abseiling hundreds of metres, they’ve been swimming along raging underground rivers, they’ve been leaping off things and climbing things, and they’re completely knackered. They’re hungry, and all they want is to have a nice celebratory glass and put their heads down on a very nice pillow, but they will not stay at a backpackers.
“So they get in their cars and they drive off to Rotorua.
“We lose them here in Waikato and it’s only because we don’t have the right sort of upmarket accommodation.”
He says that could come in different forms, from a hotel to glamping or self-contained chalets.
“We’ve done the numbers on this. A five percent increase would result in a brand new 100 room hotel being 60 percent full. So there’s a massive opportunity here for a hotel. The challenge is that we’re seasonal. Whereas we get about 3000 tourists a day in summer, it drops down to about 800 or 900 in the bottom of winter.
“That’s what a number of different entities have been struggling with.”
The tourism mix at Waitomo, at 80 percent international visitors, is very different from other parts of Waikato. Of the tourists taking in the “golden triangle” – Auckland, Waitomo, Rotorua – 85 percent head to Waitomo first. The challenge then is to encourage them to stay longer in the region.
Visitor boost for Hamilton eatery
Lonely Planet helped put Vietnamese eatery Banh Mi Caphe on the map. The cafe opened on Victoria St in 2013 with what was then a rare cuisine for the Hamilton scene. It took a while to establish itself, but then along came Lonely Planet. The reviewer had obviously enjoyed their meal at the eatery, and written it up accordingly. The cafe has never looked back.
Ann Chaimontree, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband Pat, remembers the time. “Since that we’ve seen a massive surge in tourists coming to try our food, mainly the French and the German – I think because they’re more aware of Vietnamese food.”
Since then the cafe has shifted to a larger, more upmarket site beside Victoria on the River, and the backpacker trade brought in by Lonely Planet has become less significant. It made Lonely Planet twice, with its welcome boost to business, and Ann also points to the value of Trip Advisor for cafes and restaurants.
She says Hobbiton is often mentioned by tourists dining at the cafe. “A lot of them, are really into the Lord of the Rings.”
Hamilton Gardens is also big for the out-of-town visitors they talk to. “We see that on a Saturday, if they’re coming from Auckland they tend to stop here and have lunch, and then they’ll go off to the Gardens before carrying on elsewhere.”
Theirs is an example of the many ways in which tourism spreads out through an economy, beyond the obvious drawcards and destinations. In turn, it reinforces the value of such establishments for the tourism industry.