BY SANDY MYHRE
New Zealand is enjoying considerable growth in tourism. The prime destinations are (naturally) cities like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch but regional tourism is also on the rise.
Hoping to capture some of that growth and eminently suited to do so is the Bay of Islands in the Far North of New Zealand. With 260 kilometres of sea encompassing more than 140 subtropical islands replete with sandy shorelines overlooked by natural bush, it surely is a tourist mecca.
Add to that the historically important sites like the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the Mission Houses, Russell, Okiato (the country’s first capital) the pristine marine beauty of the bay and the kauri forests, then the area is unique within the country.
This jewel in the Far North’s enticing crown is only a three-hour drive from Auckland, or a 35-minute flight. If you think it’s tailor-made for tourism, you’d be right. Except, curiously, only one in five inbound visitors venture north.
According to regional tourism statistics issued by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) Northland sits well below other regional tourist areas like Otago, the Bay of Plenty and Marlborough in terms of attracting tourists. Given the intrinsic beauty of the Bay of Islands which is considered unsurpassed, and it’s the prime region of the country’s historical colonial development, you’d have to ask, why?
Charles Parker, general manager of Fullers Great Sights, the largest marine tourism operator in the region, says perception has played a key role – sufficient for him and other local key industry players to form the Bay of Islands Marketing Group to try to improve those visitor statistics.
“While the Bay of Islands rated highly with tourists and has an attractive name, Northland rated very lowly and there were negative connotations associated with that.
“The group was formed to work with the domestic market because we felt the regional tourist organisation had a Northland focus that was not benefiting the Bay of Islands,” he said.
The group is separate and apart from Northland Inc which is tasked with regional economic development and regional tourism operations and is controlled and funded by the Northland Regional Council.
There is a valid reason why BOI Marketing Group concentrates on the domestic market. International tourism is New Zealand’s largest earner of foreign exchange and, yet, domestic tourist spending of NZ$20.2 billion a year still exceeds that of international visitors at $11.8 billion.
The BOI Marketing Group is entirely industry funded to the tune of $250,000 per year and can point to success. As a destination-of-choice for Aucklanders, the BOI has improved from number seven a few years ago to number two recently.
Even so, there remains considerable competition from other regions like Marlborough and Wairarapa (for vineyards) and Rotorua which has a slick and highly successful marketing approach that is funded with regional tourism dollars.
The prime regional destination of Queenstown continues to attract both domestic and international visitors in considerable quantities. The inbound visitor investment of $3,785 million for the region (Otago) far exceeds that of other regions and represents a 21% rise to the year ended March 2017.
Visitors to Northland as a whole (the Bay of Islands included) spent $1,128 million in the same period and in a perverse way Queenstown’s very success may have aided Northland’s quantifiable 8% growth during that period. The resort town is suffering from a perceived difficulty in getting suitable accommodation, over-crowding and the cost of flying there from Auckland.
In any event, as the largest marine operator in the Bay of Islands, Fullers Great Sights is geared to accommodate projected tourism growth. The company has 10 cruise boats, two passenger ferries (between Paihia and Russell) and three vehicle ferries (between Opua and Okiato, near Russell). The car and passenger ferries are popular during the summer months and, no doubt, contribute well to the overall Fullers Great Sights’ budget.
It’s not the only car ferry operating in the area, there’s one between Rawene and Kohukohu across the Hokianga. That’s subsidised by the Far North District Council and is therefore cheaper than the Fullers Great Sights’ car ferry which is independently owned and operated and a monopoly. One recent visitor from France (but born and raised in Auckland) thought the Fullers’ car ferry was expensive and he’d like to see a visitor price concession for overseas tourists.
The larger boats in the Fullers Great Sights’ fleet, the passenger cruise boats, are the flag-wavers for the company and command considerable passenger numbers but like any sea-going operation are weather-dependent. The summer of 2017 (which saw little or no rain for around four months) was the perfect tourist storm, so to speak, and helped improve visitor statistics.
A year later, however, and the weather was anything but benevolent and as Charles Parker points out, in a sea-going operation nothing is assured. Rough seas and high winds are to the bay what fog is to airports and aviation.
The number of cruise ship no-shows over the 2017-2018 cruise season was high. On one day alone, two cruise ships, carrying combined 4000-plus passengers, cancelled their visit to the bay because of high winds. And that, of course, affects Fullers Great Sights and other Bay of Islands’ businesses as a domino consequence.
One Fullers Great Sights boat is for sale. The former Ipipiri was sent to Auckland for Hauraki Blue Cruises and is back in the Bay of Islands and tied up at Opua marina. Charles Parker says there is ‘some interest’ in the asset.
There are few other places in New Zealand where you can cruise close to dolphins, or swim with them provided the weather allows and there are no nursing mothers in the pod, or travel through a hole in a rock in the middle of a small island in the centre of a large bay, or cruise around caves with a prime view of cormorant nests. Or, indeed, visit so many historical sites in such a relatively small area.
With the newly-announced development of the Opua marina and the Paihia and Russell wharves, the maritime infrastructure to cope with a projected rise in tourist numbers is potentially in place. One new restaurant has opened near Russell in the past year and one is poised to open this coming summer. The Duke of Marlborough Hotel is in expansion mode.
The marketing push to entice visitors to the Bay of Islands is in place thanks to those who noted a gap in the publicity approach from the regional development agency and did something about it.
There might need to be help from other sources like the weather gods to maintain the impetus but, overall, the omens look strong for the Bay of Islands to welcome visiting guests in greater numbers than in the past.