An Operator’s View: Earth & Sky’s Margaret Munro

Margaret Munro

Earth & Sky general manager Margaret Munro on the operator’s new partnership with China Southern Airlines, the challenges of hiring skilled staff in the regions, and the progress being made on its joint venture with Ngāi Tahu: the $10m International Astronomy Centre at Lake Tekapo.

The Mackenzie region is famous for its natural beauty and clear skies. It’s so clear that in June 2012, the region became an international dark sky reserve and awarded gold status for having one of the darkest skies available in the world. Known as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, it is the largest of the 11 international dark sky reserves around the globe.

So, where better to build an International Astronomy Centre than right on the shores of the stunning Lake Tekapo?

We already operate stargazing tours at the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory, 1035 metres above sea level in the middle of a vast tussock-covered plateau surrounded by turquoise blue lakes and high mountain peaks. During the day, many visitors hike or drive to the summit – but it’s at night when the true magic of the region can be appreciated.

Stargazing tours are also done at Cowan’s Observatory, 780 metres above sea level and the darkest location for stargazing in Aotearoa.

Through these two sites, about 200,000 visitors each year are able to view the wonder of the universe and experience somewhere they will never physically go or simply visit the research observatory and Astro Café on the summit of Mt John, to take in the most scenic daytime views from this mountain top.

In November 2016, we entered into a partnership with Ngāi Tahu Tourism and announced our plans to build the International Astronomy Centre. Ngāi Tahu Tourism was our preferred partner as it is also a whānau-owned business driven by its values and dedicated to providing authentic experiences that people can’t get anywhere else.

We are doing a lot of work behind the scenes to finalise what the building is going to look like and what the experience is going to include, and are looking forward to sharing this with the community as soon as we can.

Construction on the International Astronomy Centre is expected to begin in December 2017, with completion estimated by the end of 2018.

We take true delight in showing visitors from all over the world the spectacular southern night skies from our mountain top and dark sky locations and hope that our new centre will educate and fascinate even more people. It will be accessible to everyone, from the thousands of visitors who transit through the region daily to those who stay at Lake Tekapo for our stargazing and observatory tours.

With astounding and unobstructed lake views, this will be a building of significance. It will offer a unique year-round, day/night attraction that will support local tourism and increased visitor attendance.

The night sky holds special value to many cultures, and we, along with our partner Ngāi Tahu Tourism, intend to provide rich cultural content that is authentic and local.

Bad weather, primarily cloud and wind, means that there are times when visitors are unable to experience stargazing from Mt John or Cowan’s Observatory. The fact that the tours run late at night is another limiting factor for some customers. The opportunity exists, therefore, to create an indoor, all-weather, experience to allow us to reach a wider audience and deliver an amazing experience for visitors.

With its working telescope, immersive visitor experience and acknowledging the research projects undertaken at the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory, gives us a unique educational opportunity, at school and university level and beyond.

Visitors on our tours have differing experiences, whether it has re-kindled their curiosity of the universe, allowed them time to explore more in-depth knowledge while conversing with our astronomy guides, or just simply to value a sight they have never seen before.

It’s an opportunity for visitors to reconnect with the night sky and I believe this is why our attraction has experienced significant growth and popularity.

One of the biggest challenges that Earth & Sky has faced over the years is probably around finding skilled team members and assisting them to find suitable accommodation in the township. A number of staff also commute from Fairlie to Tekapo daily, which has helped take the pressure off Tekapo, but has an impact on those that have to commute each day.

Earth & Sky provide employment to over 45 individuals across a variety of roles from coach drivers, customer service representatives, café assistants and tour guides. For some roles we are reliant on international staff with specific language skills and relevant qualifications.

We are committed to providing employment locally where we can and we invest heavily in training. However, a large number of our customers are from overseas and we deliver the scientific content of our night tours in four languages. These skills cannot always be found in the domestic market so we are dependent on an immigration system which can support our business operation and the wider economy of Tekapo.

Like most employers in our industry, we are concerned about the proposed changes to immigration policy, in particular the short to medium term implications these changes will have to the continuing ability to successfully grow this business and tourism overall in this country.

Engaging our customers and ensuring they spend time in the Mackenzie region has a flow on impact for the entire community so it would be concerning if we have to restrict our tours because we are unable to employ sufficient staff.

For the South Island to reach into international markets it is heavily reliant on air connectivity. Earth & Sky has worked closely with the Christchurch International Airport over the past four years, being part of the Kia Ora South Programme, which has seen some of the South Islands leading tourism operators join with Christchurch Airport to visit China each year – to basically sell the South Island.

From the very first visit in 2014, the reaction from the China market was almost instant with bookings coming within a couple of months of the trip and numbers have continued to grow. It was as a result of this relationship that the China Southern Airlines partnership developed.

The popularity of the night sky and the reputation of Lake Tekapo as a destination grew in a very short time. Being early to market, providing a pretty unique experience in an outstanding part of the Country, who provides staff to speak in Mandarin or Cantonese, Earth & Sky’s quickly established itself as a must-do attraction and Tekapo is seen as a welcoming and friendly place to visit by customers from China.

China Southern Airlines have made their connection to Lake Tekapo via the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory, by associating with a location that’s of significance to the Chinese tourist, a destination that sells seats on planes, and brings visitors directly to the South Island.

This relationship has significant value to all parties involved, if the tourism sector can work to replicate this kind of flagship relationship than we are on the right path to supporting New Zealand’s connectivity with the world.

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