From response to restart of the Mighty Waikato

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As we slowly start to emerge from the shockwaves of the past few weeks, it’s been good to hear of a number of businesses being creative and utilising the lockdown to create opportunities.

However, the visitor economy was effectively shut down overnight, impacting a range of businesses including tourism operators, transport providers, accommodation, hospitality, retail, conference and event organisers, venues, caterers and suppliers.

As this has happened so fast, the full cost of the impact is yet to be measured. The only saving grace is that our industry is not alone in facing this threat, as our whole country has been in shutdown or in a ‘rahui’ for the past few weeks.

We are all hoping that when Covid-19 has been tackled and travel restrictions are lifted, a reinvigorated and more resilient industry will emerge. We only need to look to China, which initially bore the brunt of the challenges ahead and is finally starting to see normal everyday life resume.

Although some of our tourism family have managed to carry on in some capacity during the international travel restrictions and the current Alert Level 4 lockdown, we have continued to see many of our operators downsize, go into temporary “hibernation” and reduce staff numbers.

Some within our hospitality sector have taken the next step and reopened with a very limited service offering at Alert Level 3. However, for many in our tourism and event industry, it’s not until we reach Alert Levels 2 or 1 before we can start to consider reopening again with physical distancing and contact tracing mechanisms.

Being the one of the first sectors severely impacted with Covid-19 has given us a lead time. This means we now have the headspace to move from response phase to begin conversations on reimagining and restarting tourism in our region.

It’s giving us the chance to pose questions around our previous visitor arrivals and expenditure growth, what does success look like for the future and how do we move our sector from a ‘boom and bust’ cycle? It’s now time to inspire, facilitate collective reflection, share ideas and help define a new Waikato visitor destination, along with New Zealand Inc.

We are now starting to turn our organisation from response phase into facing the reimagined future for tourism. We know that to restart our visitor industry we will focus on the “hyper-local” market, before moving to intra-regional travel and eventually domestic travel first from our key drive markets. The longer term play will be re-establishing an international presence.

We should be proud as a region that in 2016 we adopted the Tourism Opportunities Plan based on conversations to redefine Waikato as a new visitor destination. We worked together on prioritising our five regional game-changers through to identifying emerging opportunities for our region that increased the ‘value’ of tourism, rather than the ‘volume-based’ model.

This will help inform the next evolution of our industry to develop a Destination Management Plan bringing together a wider range of stakeholders to help our communities thrive. This is also aligned to the aspirations of our industry’s “Tourism 2025 & Beyond Sustainable Growth Framework” and the Government’s “New Zealand-Aotearoa Government Tourism Strategy”.

We are under no illusion that this is not a recovery programme – it is more a restart journey which we need to navigate and pivot for the long-term. Let the marathon begin.

Through all the darkness and bleak outlooks, I have been heartened by stories of innovation, creativity and kindness show from our tourism sector. Together, we will get through and we will stand stronger than ever.

Hamilton & Waikato Tourism is the regional tourism organisation charged with increasing international and domestic leisure and business travellers, expenditure and stay. The organisation is funded through a public/private partnership and covers the heartland Waikato areas of Hamilton City, Matamata-Piako, Otorohanga, South Waikato, Waikato, Waipa and Waitomo Districts. Find out more: www.waikatonz.com

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Jason Dawson

Chief Executive, Hamilton & Waikato Tourism