Northland businesses say they can not afford another drought of holidaymakers as checkpoints and negative publicity threaten to deter visitors.
The Advocate spoke to a number of industry leaders and business owners at popular destinations to gather a snapshot of the summer ahead.
Most felt bleak about what should be a peak period for tourism as would-be visitors cancelled bookings because they felt unwelcome or nervous about the checkpoint experience.
Next Wednesday will see police and Tai Tokerau Border Control (TTBC) begin to check Auckland motorists headed in to Northland are vaccinated or have a negative Covid test result.
TTBC co-coordinator Rueben Taipari said the checkpoints located on State Highway 1 near Uretiti and SH12 near Maungatūroto were to protect vulnerable communities with low vaccination rates.
Many businesses respectfully acknowledged the intent but said they could no longer endure the consequences of people’s decisions not to get vaccinated.
Far North Mayor John Carter backed the “safety first” approach but was concerned the suggestion they would be “hard borders” which had hurt Northland’s hospitality and tourism industries.
“We’re trying to get the balance right and it’s a real challenge. It’s caused cancellations of bookings which has a serious negative impact on our economy.”
He said the current hard borders had “economically shut down” Tai Tokerau as visitor numbers disintegrated.
“Now that is continuing over the peak period season. Safety is one issue, we understand that … but people are going to have to become personably responsible for their decisions so our economy can survive.”
Local businesses were “very distressed” about the checkpoints at Northland’s gateway, Kaitaia Business Association chairwoman Andrea Panther said.
“People finally have the opportunity to travel and spend money outside of Auckland but they’re taking the safe option to go south rather than north because they’re guaranteed to have a holiday.”
Panther said the damage affected more than just accommodation, tourism, and hospitality.
“Visitors go to cafes, petrol stations, supermarkets – it has a huge flow-on effect because of all the extra services that they use when they go travelling.”
She said this latest challenge could be the “final straw” for a number of businesses, who were copping adversity as they transitioned into the traffic light system.
“There are quite a few who are finding it too hard. It’s on top of introducing vaccine passes in communities where we know everyone.
“People are having to turn away friends and families. People’s businesses have gone down by a third – it’s the common figure they are saying.”
Businesses were already missing out on Christmas party revenue as many workplaces navigated the issue of unvaccinated staff by cancelling.
“We’ve got a double whammy happening,” Panther said.
Northland Hospitality Association branch chairman John Maurice, also the owner of the Bank Bar in Kaikohe, had heard of people striking Northland off the holiday map.
He said the summer months were vital for Northland businesses, which had been severed from the rest of the country for the 107 days Auckland was in lockdown.
“I had a business in Paihia, I have one here in Kaikohe and between December through to March my revenue was equal for those four months to what it was in the other eight months of the year.
“A lot of us rely on the holiday period to make the money to survive through the winter months,” he said.
Paihia-based Salt Air chief executive Grant Harnish said the checkpoint’s impact on summer trading gave businesses “more of a reason to just give up”.
“We’ve just been through four months of being shut off and people are just hanging on by the skin of their teeth …
“Therefore, we’re not only facing an appalling 18-months … but now we’re facing a disrupted summer because no one knows the plan because of the varying ideas from Hone Harawira to what police are saying to what media is saying,” Harnish said.
And once summer was over Northland businesses would experience Kiwis flying out of the door when the international borders open in February.
“The reality is there’ll be no one to replace them,” Harnish said.
He predicted international visitors would be put off travelling to New Zealand from April 30 onwards because they still have to self-isolate for seven days.
Taupo Bay Holiday Park manager Jodie Rogers said the reaction to the checkpoints from booked campers had been a “real mixed bag”.
“Some don’t care and they’re coming regardless, and some are very overly cautious and they’ve cancelled.”
However, that had opened up bookings for others to get a site at the popular Far North campground.
But Rogers was still fielding daily calls from campers fearful the checkpoints would be “intimidating” or “aggressive”.
“I’m doing my best to alleviate concerns about them by telling people not to see it as a negative, it’s just another line of defence to help the safety of the people in the Far North and they won’t be intimidating and it’s police-led,” she said.
Rogers felt media coverage of the checkpoints had fuelled people’s misconceptions.
“It’s not warranted and it’s not helpful … I think we should be letting people know that they are very welcome here and we are doing all we can to maintain safety.”
The Baylys Beach Holiday Park owner also commented on how damaging media had been for Northland tourism.
“I had a lot of cancellations. I sort of wonder that the media was making too big of a deal about it and we’re making people feel very unwelcome,” she said.
Her campground, near Dargaville, was the quietest it has ever been in the 15 years she has owned it due to the usual out-of-town guests being shut out by the hard border.
She hoped her bookings for the New Year period didn’t suffer from the checkpoints.
They had already had to make big changes that could impact their income, such as people now having to book ahead rather than accepting walk-ins from roaming travellers.
“I just think we’ve all got to be prepared to live differently now and without being angry with each other,” she said.
On the flipside, Auckland favourites Ruakākā Beach Holiday Park and Camp Waipū Covehad seen no fallout from the checkpoints.
Ruakākā park manager Anne-Marie Abel said this summer looked the same as every other year with a healthy number of sites booked.
Waipū campground owner Anton Trist echoed her good news stating 95 per cent of his campers called Auckland home.
Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai said she had anecdotally heard Whangārei businesses had bookings cancelled as a result of the checkpoints.
She understood and supported the iwi perspective to keep Northland communities safe but was disappointed it cost businesses and the region’s economy.
“We all need to keep in perspective this is about responding to a virus, we all need to remember we’re human and we need to get on with one another whatever the perspective is.”
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