Not just Queenstown, Auckland tourism operators hurting from closed borders too

A small Auckland tour operator that is trading at just 5 per cent of what it normally would says tourism in the country’s most populous city is “decimated”.

Philippa Dean, general manager and director of FlexitoursNZ, says tourism hotspots such as Queenstown and Rotorua have received the most support since New Zealand shut its borders to international tourists, but it was regions such as Auckland that were hardest hit.

Dean, who has owned the upmarket tour group company for six years, which specialises in tours to Hobbiton, Rotorua, Waitomo Caves and surrounding areas, says Auckland tourism businesses were on the brink of collapse.

“Whilst Kiwis are travelling around, Aucklanders are supporting the whole of New Zealand, the rest of New Zealand is not supporting Auckland,” Dean told the Herald.

“Auckland tourism is totally decimated, except for one or two attractions that appeal to Kiwis, that traditionally had a New Zealand following.”

FlexitoursNZ, has conducted just 12 tours since lockdown level 3 restrictions lifted in August. That’s 168 less than it would usually do in a typical two-month period.

The numbers on those tours were also half that of typical capacity.

The business usually turns over between $2.5-3 million each year. Since April, it has turned over $65,000 – down from $1.41m on the same time last year.

Prior to the pandemic, the business had not had a day off from running a tour for five years. It had carried 10,000 passengers in the 2018/19 year.

The business is now surviving on savings and has been forced to sell some of its vehicles, it plans to reduce its vehicle fleet down to five from nine.

Dean said the business was stuck between a rock and hard place – Kiwis did not want to book tours, it cannot get help from the bank or help from the Government as it was not considered a “strategic asset” and there was no sign of when the country would open up to inbound tourism.

She said she had exhausted every form of marketing to attract bookings – giveaways and competitions, influencers, specials and accommodation package deals and had even partnered with other tourism operators, without any luck.

“I’m on Facebook all the time, I get hundreds of likes but very few bookings.”

Dean, who will turn 65 years old next September, had even tried – without luck – to access her KiwiSaver funds early to help support the business during this time. She said she was told that she would need to lose the business, be behind on her mortgage and “basically be almost insolvent and not be able to eat”: “I cannot get my hands on a lump sum, which could actually just take the pressure off our business.”

Dean and her partner purchased FlexitoursNZ six years ago. Prior to that, she had worked for the company from 2001.

Between the first nationwide and second lockdown in Auckland, the business was able to grow to trade to about 15 per cent of its previous levels. Dean had been hopeful it would be able to scale that to 20 per cent, but it had not been able to do so.

She put it down to New Zealanders not being interested in domestic tours.

But Dean said she was not alone in her struggles – this was a reality almost every Auckland-based tourism operator was grappling with, even large operators such as the Sky Tower.

“Auckland tourism operators are probably some of the worst hit in the country. A lot aren’t even open, they’re hibernating.

“Everybody in my branch of tourism is struggling. The only people hit harder than us are cruise ships and long tour groups,” she said, adding that regularly spoke to other Auckland businesses about the same issues.

Kiwis liked to take themselves on local trips, opting to drive in most scenarios or booking accommodation through the likes of Airbnb or Booking.com. But Dean said most would be oblivious to that fact that they were working with an international travel agent, sending 20 per cent commission overseas whilst “cutting out New Zealand operators”.

Her message to New Zealanders: “Book local. Get a quote from your information centre, have a look at a tour and see if it can take you places you haven’t been before. Look at travelling New Zealand from a different angle – don’t just hop into your car and go to the places you’ve been before.”

Tourism Industry Aotearoa is lobbying for bridging funding for tourism operators that cannot access their overseas customers and cannot fill the void hosting domestic visitors.

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