Smaller tourist operators ask Government for level playing field as they struggle on with border closure

As Kiwis head back to work after the holiday period, a family-owned tourism operator in Te Anau says prospects for the future are looking “scary” as the borders remain closed because of Covid-19.

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Fiordland Jets co-owner Chris Adams says his business has seen an 80 per cent reduction in visitors.

Fiordland Jets co-owner Chris Adams told Breakfast this morning his business was down 80 per cent, and the only reason it wasn’t any lower was because they were heavily concentrating their marketing efforts domestically.

He says operators he’s spoken to were also struggling to keep afloat without international tourists. In nearby Milford Sound, Department of Conservation data shows visitor numbers were down 72 per cent in September and October compared to the year before.

“Going forward, it is scary,” Adams said.

“It’s very challenging now. We don't know from day to day whether we’ve got customers coming.”

He says the Government’s Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme (STAPP) wasn’t helping either because it created an “unlevel playing field”.

The programme gave $20.2 million in funding to “strategic” tourism businesses, many of which were larger and had to be “key attractions” to be eligible for funding. All funding has been allocated.

Adams says because the scheme excluded smaller players, the Government needed to consider how else it could support small tourism businesses.

“No one owes us a living … so we don’t ask for handouts. We don’t want subsidies. We just want a level playing field,” he said.

But Adams says he’s determined to survive and retain all of his staff.

“We’re here for the long run and for the good of Te Anau because if we go close down and other businesses in Te Anau close down, there will be nothing when the bubble opens and people come back.”

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash acknowledged not all tourism businesses would survive the border closure.

“If we open the borders before the time is right, then not only do we put at risk every tourism business down Te Anau, Queenstown way, we put at risk every single business across the country,” he said.

“So, we’ve got to take a health approach to it.”

Nash says the Government had already invested $400 million in the tourism sector since the start of the pandemic, and an estimated $1.4 billion of the wage subsidy went to tourism businesses. He says there are also “ongoing conversations” between ministers about further support.

He says businesses also need to make sure they “pivot” away from international tourists. He says the border looks like it will remain shut for at least until the end of the year for most of the world.

“If you rely completely on foreign tourists, you’re going to be in trouble.”

He says authorities were working “incredibly hard” to start a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia.