From the Regions: Wanaka’s James Helmore

Lake Wanaka Tourism’s 2017 #skiWanaka campaign has been recognised at the Mumbrella Travel Marketing Awards. Image: Supplied

General manager of Lake Wanaka Tourism, James Helmore, on how the town’s tourism strategy has evolved, the requirement for better data and balancing the needs of the local community with a booming visitor economy.    

James Helmore

The Wanaka region has been experiencing record visitor growth for the past four years and ranked the second highest region for visitor spend growth rates in New Zealand for the past two.

This increase has been generated from both domestic and international markets. The evolution of this growth started back in 2012 when we reset our 10 year strategic plan and set lofty goals to lift our visitor economy to benefit the wider community. At the time, volume was required to give our visitor economy critical momentum and mass to drive year-round business sustainability and job creation.

Our member businesses supported these goals and, through a consultation process, a 50% lift in funding was secured. These key volume goals were reached in 2016, well ahead of the 10 year target. We then refined our approach to focus on tactical activity to spread demand to shoulder and off peak periods, driving value over volume by targeting interest based sectors, and increasing stay length by elevating our focus on things to see and do.

Our recent nomination as a finalist in the Mumbrella Travel Marketing Awards for our ski campaign is great validation that this approach is performing well, and builds on the awards we have received for our website and freedom camping educational work.

While the Wanaka region has gained significant market share over the past five years, our ability to grow at peak periods is now becoming limited due to supply constraints not only within our region but also around much of the lower South Island, which will increasingly affect traditional visitor flows. We are fortunate that the net promoter score and stay length for the Wanaka region has remained high throughout the past three years, but maintaining visitor satisfaction, particularly managing disparate domestic and international visitor expectations will become more challenging.

Alongside the lift in our visitor economy, Wanaka has also experienced a rapid increase in the residential population with approximately 3,500 sections consented and more on the way. This will more than double the population when they are built and this is happening rapidly.

This compounded growth is placing increasing pressure on our community, infrastructure and environment, and with another one million international visitors forecast to visit New Zealand in the next five years, urgent action is required. Where are these visitors going to stay and how will the regions cope with these numbers?

The local council and community board (the Wanaka region being part of the Queenstown Lakes District) is struggling to deal with such a profound rate of change, specifically how to plan holistically and pay for this growth and bring about effective action. While the community wants to see urgent action, these issues also pose a risk to the Wanaka region continuing to be a desirable visitor destination. Along with having a master plan to guide and accommodate longer term growth, more immediate pressing issues include stopping objectionable freedom camping behaviour, and proactively managing the water quality of our lakes and rivers.

Locally, it is great to see both DOC and QLDC taking additional measures to restrict and curb freedom camping, but additional parking and toilets are urgently required in multiple locations, and larger areas need to be covered by freedom camping enforcement. The obvious weaknesses in national legislation need to be remedied to ensure consistency throughout NZ, and all relevant government entities need to be aligned (NZTA, LINZ, DOC, QLDC), and a  tighter definition of self-contained and stronger penalties introduced to get rid of those vehicles that are not fit for purpose.

There are plenty of very low cost camping areas, and also free sites operated by DOC for people who want to sleep in their car. Any fines need to be held over the ownership of private vehicle and over the renter of rental vehicles to capture 100% of revenue before they leave the country. While our lakes and rivers appear pristine, there are concerns about the changing state of these and a lack of resources allocated to monitor these effectively. It is a local groundswell from our community pushing for change here. The quality of our environment deserves no less!

Despite the success of our visitor sector both locally and nationally, it surprises me that there is not a more robust and cohesive data set. At minimum a tourism data set that starts with the individual traveller and can be scaled and queried across location (RTO and TA level), stay length, spend, nationality, interest, gateway and flow through the country would help inform a broad range of regional and national decision making by public and private enterprise.

An RTO should be able to query tourism data to get an accurate picture of who the high value visitors to a destination are, and how they travel through the country in order to influence their travel further. At the moment this is pulled from a range of tourism data sets with varying degrees of methodologies and robustness.

This would help also help to clearly identify the portion of visitors staying in non-commercial accommodation. Through QRIOUS (when it was producing its LoQal Destinations product) we could see that overnight visitors in the Wanaka region were double what the Commercial Accommodation Monitor indicated, and that day visitors were equal to total overnight visitors.

We are about to reset our strategic plan in consultation with our business and community to ensure we strike the right balance of expectations.

Discussion will most definitely centre on how we can strike the right balance of value versus visitor volume, but other points will include succession planning for our small businesses, effecting meaningful change regionally and nationally through advocacy and upskilling and training our businesses, as well as the need to tell the tourism story better. Tourism drives the local economy, creating create jobs, career paths, and providing a level of amenity and service well beyond what a region of 10,000 residents would normally experience.

With demand forecast to be strong in the foreseeable future, and supply constraints happening now the tourism sector is at an interesting and critical juncture. A future that ensures a positive experience for not only the visitor but for our host community – should that be our definition of success?

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