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NZ travel: How Covid has impacted Waitomo and its tourism workers

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NZ travel: How Covid has impacted Waitomo and its tourism workers

Travel

9 Mar, 2022 01:05 AM

A venture to Waitomo Caves includes shadowy cave tours. Photo / Absolute Adventure

Shannon Corkhill, Environmental Manager, Discover Waitomo Group

As Discover Waitomo’s environmental manager, Shannon Corkill works to protect the caves by monitoring climate, carbon dioxide, and glow-worm populations while also caring for the surrounding waterways and forests. Since the arrival of Covid-19, Corkill has been working to redeploy guides and staff members to work on restoration initiatives as part of the Department of Conservation’s Kaimahi Jobs for Nature scheme.

Had you always seen yourself working in tourism?

I grew up in Ōpunake, in Taranaki, so I was always at the beach. I was a surf lifesaver and I did a lot of competitive swimming, but science was what I enjoyed most at school. Although, like most teenagers, I didn’t know what I wanted to do so in my final year of high school I went to Outward Bound. There I learnt that you can push yourself harder than you think you can, because our minds hold us back well before our bodies give up. That set me up with key skills and values, but tourism was completely off my radar.
After graduating from Massey, majoring in biochemistry and genetics, I got my first job with a New Plymouth agrichemical business. I loved travelling though, so after two years I moved to England and worked for a pharmaceutical laboratory. While I was there I did lots of travelling, Southeast Asia, Morocco, Spain and Portugal, and more.

What does your role with Discover Waitomo involve?

I ensure we adhere to our lease conditions with the cave owners. The tourism business must have no negative impact and wherever possible we should be regenerative. We look after sensors and data loggers in the three main caves. I’ve had to learn a few sparky skills along the way, to monitor CO2, temperature, humidity and water levels which helps determine how many tours we can sustainably run.

Shannon Corkhill is the Environmental Manager for Discover Waitomo Group. Photo / SuppliedShannon Corkhill is the Environmental Manager for Discover Waitomo Group. Photo / Supplied

How has Covid impacted business?

Pre-Covid, 87 per cent of our visitors were international, so a big part of my role since then has been managing Kaimahi Jobs for Nature. It’s a Department of Conservation initiative and it’s kept many of our guides employed while tourism is slow.

What is the Kaimahi programme?

It’s about achieving positive conservation outcomes by providing employment during this downturn. Last year we planted more than 7000 trees, and there were more than 22,000 human hours of predator control and track and reserve maintenance which means there’s been a noticeable increase in birdlife. There’s also a commitment to embrace tikanga and Te Ao Māori.

In spite of your role not being visitor-facing, what changes have you seen?

I’ve seen Waitomo at two extremes. When I first started, big coaches full of tourists came every day to visit the beautiful caves, and my focus was to ensure CO2 never rose above a certain level, because that could lead to condensation corrosion of the cave formations. Then in March 2020, everything came to a standstill.

What’s that done to visitor numbers?

The village is quieter without tourists. We’re open seven days a week during holidays, otherwise we’re operating Thursday to Sunday with more focus on domestic visitors and school groups.

Any silver linings?

In the absence of visitors, lockdown gave us an opportunity to monitor baseline cave climate variables for the first time since sensors were installed, so we’ve gathered some fascinating scientific data. It’s also been a real test of our resilience and we’re so grateful for Kaimahi. Having done such amazing environmental work, we’ll look to keep working on restoration projects.

What do the glow-worms think?

They’re not bothered by visitors and populations change naturally throughout the seasons. But the biggest win from lockdown was the acquisition of baseline climate data. We just published an article in the International Journal of Speleology about how caves breathe, air moves and temperatures fluctuate.

What about your own life. How have you coped?

It’s been challenging. Uncertainty is never easy, but I understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and that it won’t be like this forever.

discoverwaitomo.com

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