The outgoing chief executive of Visit Ruapehu, Claire McKnight, on transforming the region into a year-round destination, managing growth, and identifying the opportunities ahead for the unique area.
Ruapehu is the perfect example of New Zealand’s Greater Outdoors. Blessed with an abundance of natural assets in the two National Parks of Tongariro and Whanganui, Ruapehu is continuing to grow from what was once, predominately a winter destination, to one which truly delivers year-round appeal to both domestic and international visitors.
Its accessibility from Auckland and Wellington and proximity to places such as Lake Taupo positions it well for growth. Experiences such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Mt Ruapehu’s winter and summer products make up the core of the visitor volumes.
As with many areas in New Zealand, tourism is fundamental to the current and future economic and social growth of the communities within it. The direct and indirect benefits of tourism expenditure are significant whilst not always obvious to all in places such as Ruapehu. As someone new to tourism taking on leading the Regional Tourism Organisation two years ago, I was struck by the opportunity that tourism possessed for Ruapehu’s future and the stunning natural landscapes and experiences it provided.
Special places often come with challenges and Ruapehu is not immune to that. The physical, spiritual and cultural environment needs to be protected whilst growth is enabled. Its community size is small, with around 9,000 ratepayers so capacity – both in terms of human and financial resources – is limited. The alpine environments of the mountains and remoteness of some parts of the river mean commercial operations are not always as straightforward as they may be in other places. That also includes the added interest of volcanic eruptions!
One challenge that I suspect isn’t unique to Ruapehu, is the danger of not looking at the visitor industry through their own eyes. For the past two years, we’ve spent significant time getting “the basics right” in Ruapehu, and the start of that was a comprehensive market insight exercise to understand more about our current and future visitors. It was one of the best investments we have made.
Having solid insight, from the consumer, has allowed us to make decisions around what we invest our scarce resources in from a market development perspective. It’s also been used to support content creation, development of our relationships with organisations such as Tourism New Zealand, The Department of Conservation and the travel trade and as importantly, to help our local communities understand why we make some of the decisions we do.
Ruapehu has also been fortunate to be part of the Government’s regional growth programme, under the Manawatu-Whanganui region and Accelerate 25.
As one of the early Regional Growth Studies, the Manawatu-Whanganui Regional Action plan recognised Tourism and Visitor services as a key driver for economic growth. Working through this programme has allowed Ruapehu to further develop the framework and support for our growth.
It’s just the start of the journey but it’s a welcome one. Investments in infrastructure are incredibly important and the Government’s ongoing support for New Zealand to do this a great step forward. For Ruapehu to fully maximise its potential to deliver for New Zealand’s visitor sector, which it absolutely has the ability to do, it needs more.
Following the launch of the Regional Economic Action plan last August, we’ve recently completed the Ruapehu Regional Visitor Development plan, co-funded by MBIE and local government. It identifies the collaborations, investments in experiences, infrastructures and products plus the enabling support that is needed for Ruapehu to maximise its potential for New Zealand. The key now is in the implementation and momentum.
It’s an exciting time for New Zealand’s tourism industry and that’s certainly echoed in Ruapehu.