I had an incredible experience last Tuesday. I went off on my own and did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is one of the most popular day walks in New Zealand.
I like to start at 6am. It’s cool, the track hasn’t yet filled up with people, and if you want to do a little jog like I do, you’re not annoying the crowds by trying to pass people.
The first person I saw at the start of the track was a DOC worker who was heading up the Mangatepopo Valley as it was slowly coming to life with the sunrise. He was heading up to dig out the culverts before the rain comes – hard to imagine at the moment.
And that was it. No one. No one for the next two hours. I climbed the saddle, crossed the South Crater, climbed up the ridgeline to the Red Crater. Took some of the most stunning photos I have every taken on the Crossing and marvelled that there was no one else in them. I stood quietly and took in the silence, the magnificence of this unique, extraordinary landscape, and then headed down the shingle scree into the North Crater.
I stopped by the Emerald Lakes and had a sandwich, and got the fright of my life when two other people appeared from various directions. I only saw another four people before hitting an empty Ketatahi carpark. In total, I saw six people while doing the Crossing. Six.
Now, we all know the tourism industry has been doing it tough, but the magnitude of how rough it’s been hit me as I did the Crossing. I know it was a Tuesday, near the end of the school holidays, and I started early, but I’ve done it like this before, and by the time I’m done, there’s always people around.
What was a precious experience for me illustrates the crisis for those in the region who make their living from activities like this. Another friend did the Crossing before Christmas and their shuttle bus driver said the business had employed six drivers fulltime. Now there are two working part time.
So it’s very frustrating to see that our protocols and processes at the border aren’t improving. We are still having conversations about the difficulties of getting an MIQ voucher, that the Wiggles can get into the country but New Zealanders in difficult circumstances can’t, there’s a perplexing situation at one of our main MIQ facilities leading to community cases again, a call for the extension of how long people must self-isolate once out of MIQ, and today again, a call by epidemiologists to turn down the tap.
I think we’ve all been patient and understanding about the complexities of the border, and that we need to be fluid to adapt to the global situation, but this isn’t a good sign for the tourism industry.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts made the call at the end of January that businesses need to know what the possibilities were for a full or state-by-state Trans-Tasman bubble, and how is the Government going to assist tourism businesses who are unable to access their customers.
I completely see the need for these questions to be answered, but it’s almost impossible to do so.
As much as I’d like to see more solutions on the table, we are stuck in a wait and see game. No one knows what this virus will do next, how effective the vaccine will be, when and where the next community case will appear from. Who knows when it will be safe to open a Trans Tasman bubble, let alone let in the rest of the world. As we saw in Queensland recently, it only takes one community case for quarantine free flights to be shut down.
Do we keep supporting businesses that are unsustainable over the next few years, or do we make hard decisions and let the industry reset itself? Landing the right mix will be challenging.
I have great sympathy with those in the industry, but I fear there is only so much the government can, or will do. I reckon the big tourism operators are aware of this, but you can’t blame them for putting pressure on the government.
Waitangi Day weekend marks the end of the school holidays and is the last public holiday until Easter. No wonder tourism operators are saying April will be crunch time for many of them when it comes to making the decision as to whether they cut their losses and shutdown, or try and hang in there. The next few months will be telling.
As much as we keep trying, Kiwi customers can’t fill the gap left by the overseas visitors. If walking the Tongariro Crossing has been on your bucket list for a while, and it’s some peace and quiet you’re after, can I suggest, now is an excellent time to do it.