Queenstown Mall was eerily quiet days after the first case of the Covid-19 Omicron variant was discovered in the town.
Queenstown’s hospitality and tourism owners are running out of patience waiting for the border to open to international visitors, with 20 per cent less visitors to the usual tourist-hotspot compared to this time last year.
The decrease in visitor numbers compared to March 2021 are despite the lockdown in Tāmaki Makaurau last year which left Aucklanders unable to make their way down south.
Omicron has had a devastating effect on the Otago town’s hospitality and tourism venues, and some businesses have had to close their doors, unable to hold on for the arrival of overseas visitors any longer.
Some of the town’s usually packed and popular bars, restaurants and pubs have temporarily stopped trading while waiting on a border announcement from the Government.
* Covid-19: More staff in Queenstown businesses, now they need customers
* More Queenstown venues forced to shut as Covid-19 cases rise
* Covid-19: ‘Crisis’ in Queenstown as staff isolation rules cause mass closures
The owners of Republic Hospitality Group Queenstown have temporarily closed six of its 11 venues during March.
When they will be able to open their doors again depends solely on when international tourists will be allowed into New Zealand without an isolation period, said chief executive Blair Impey.
“We just want certainty on when the borders will open to tourists without [them having to] self-isolate, and then we can make plans around how we structure the launches of the venues we currently have hibernating.”
Dr Caroline McElnay gives a Covid-19 briefing on March 8.
Impey said while it was great that returning Kiwis no longer have to isolate when coming home, it was unlikely to help Queenstown’s hospitality and tourism in a significant way.
Queenstown Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ruth Stokes said the border opening didn’t just affect tourism and hospitality, but all industries in Queenstown who rely on migrant workers and overseas consumers.
“Without any certainty around what is happening in terms of those dates, we are certainly hearing that, anecdotally, liquidations are increasing.”
According to the Government’s current phased border reopening plan, the border will open to all visitors from October.
James Allan/Getty Images
Queenstown Chamber of Commerce CEO Ruth Stokes said business owners need early notice and certainty around the NZ border reopening to international visitors.
Keeping New Zealand’s borders closed was a “finite gain”, said Stokes, as many businesses were “haemorrhaging thousands of dollars every week”.
“It is amazing how many people have hung on, actually.”
Stokes said the Government needed to give business owners advanced notice of overseas tourists’ arrival, more than ten days like with last year’s Australian-New Zealand travel bubble announcement.
“Everyone across the country is crying out for workers, but one of the difficulties for businesses at the moment is trying to hang on to those workers, because as soon as borders reopen they are going to get slammed.”
Stokes said the Government’s Kick-Start package for businesses relaunching after the Omicron outbreak was a great initiative, but they are yet to hear when this would be available to them.
For Impey, the wait meant struggling to find work for his 100 staff. Republic had kept on its workers, but was taking the financial loss.
“The Government support package is not a wage subsidy,” he said.
Republic Hospitality Group chief executive Blair Impey said it was hard to keep his staff working, but they were being paid and kept on during this tough period.
“It helps pay a lot of bills, and it helps mitigate some losses, but it doesn’t take away the fact that you still need to find hours for the number of staff you’ve got and need work.”
Impey stopped short of saying the town was dead, as some Queenstown locals were still venturing out and socialising. But it was “very quiet” for summer’s end, he said.
Destination Queenstown marketing and communications manager Sarah O’Donnell said there were a multitude of reasons visitor numbers were at an all-time low.
No international visitors was one of them, but domestic tourism was also at its quietest.
“It has been an incredibly challenging two years for the tourism industry, but… we are hopeful that travel confidence will re-emerge over the coming weeks as the [Omicron] peak eases.”