Editorial: Icy response to minister in Glacier Country sign of times

EDITORIAL

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has received a taste of what could be a series of difficult discussions this year.

He fronted up to the decimated tourism-based communities of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier on Tuesday where he heard details of a near-$35 million wishlist to keep them going.

Heavily dependent on international visitors, what is promoted as Glacier Country has lost more than 500 jobs and businesses still open are operating at only 20 per cent. Most of those say they won’t get through winter.

Nash was never going to open the cheque book: he’s already made it clear that the Government is not in a position to help every business through the pandemic.

And, facing criticism from the tourism lobby for not meeting those in the frontline, he said he was there to listen.

But those who went to the meeting with low expectations had them met.

Nash alluded to more work under way on futher support for parts of the tourism sector but told a meeting it was time to have that ”very difficult discussion with your bankers, your employers, your creditors and your community because we cannot save every business”.

A wage subsidy for five tourism regions affected most by border closures would cost up to $1 billion.

With so much uncertainty over the resumption of international tourism to anything like the $17b a year earner it was, he is right not to offer a blank cheque.His cabinet colleague and West Coast Tasman MP Damien O’Connor was also there and the response to the little they had to offer was largely frosty, by all accounts.

The struggling hotel sector is the latest in the tourism system to appeal for more government help. The wage support during lockdowns only goes so far, says Hotel Council Aotearoa.

It is calling for recognition that hotels, while privately owned, are key tourist infrastructure alongside Air New Zealand, airports and domestic transport infrastructure.

It makes the fair point that international guests judge a country by the quality of these “tourism backbone” assets. Hotels — like Air New Zealand — market internationally and will be critical to attracting people back to New Zealand as normal travel conditions resume.

Like others in business, hotels and the entire tourism sector want to know timelines and preconditions for opening an Australian bubble initially and other countries after that.

Given this Government’s caution on committing to a date right now, that falls into the how-long-is-a-piece-of-string category.

Hotels are also appealing for sector-specific support to help save jobs until borders reopen, including long-term loans to help cover ongoing fixed costs.

Nash gave an impression his main priority was getting freedom campers off the road when he started in the tourism portfolio.

Although his enthusiasm to stamp out bad behaviour may have been misconstrued as his main concern, now is the time for listening carefully to the tourism sector which, pre-pandemic, was responsible for employing 13.7 per cent of the labour force.

With already clearly stated limited spending he then has to deliver targeted assistance that will not end up before Auditor-General as last year’s hastily rolled out Strategic Tourism Assets Protection programme has.

In normal times, the tourism portfolio can be a fun job. These are not normal times.

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