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An Operator’s View: Kapiti Island’s John Barrett

15 Sep 2017  By Contributor

A record number of objectors stood against Kapiti Island Nature Tours’ resource consent application in 1997. Now, the operator has been recognised as one of the best in the country.

Following its  Māori Tourism Award win last week and this week’s Te Reo celebration, we hear from Kapiti Island Nature Tours founder John Barrett about the value of culture to its eco-tourism business, overcoming significant opposition to its launch, and expanding beyond the island.
Our Māori principles and culture guide pretty much everything we do. We run the business on a set of traditional Māori principles or kaupapa and we operate that way all year round. It has been a part of our business since the beginning but for new staff coming along, even for new family staff who may not have been involved with Kapiti Island for as long as we have, it can still be something new. But without exception, they all buy into it very quickly and very readily.

Ceillhe Sperath from TIME Unlimited Tours and John Barrett were the finalists for the Māori Tourism Award, which Kapiti Island Nature Tours won.

When it comes to the use of te reo in public I’m heartened at times and disheartened at other times. When I receive emails or have conversations with people who make a real effort to give recognition to te reo, you do feel very good about it. Then on National Radio you hear words being mispronounced terribly and you do wonder what on earth is going on there. It is a long game really.
In terms of the challenges we have faced, right from the outset we had to deal with people who did not believe we should be operating a tourism business on Kapiti Island. There was a perception that it was Crown-owned, a piece of the Department of Conservation estate, and that there should not be anybody operating there except for DOC. Interestingly, DOC did not mind – they were a very good partner right from the start. But there was opposition from a small section of the public who believed what we had planned was not appropriate for Kapiti Island.
In fact, the resource consent application that we submitted in 1997 was the most highly objected to tourism consent in the history of the Resource Management Act at the time. We had around 1500 objections from around the country, some from people who did not even know where Kapiti Island was. That was quite a big obstacle to get over.
It cost us money we did not have and time and stress but we battled through it all – national press, resource consents, the Environment Court – and it has taken us since 1999 to get where we are today, which is the beginning of a really solid period of growth.
We have had 20%-30% growth year-on-year, which is about as much as we can manage. Our total staff now numbers 22, which includes an office on the mainland with our marketing, sourcing and administration teams. And we have an island crew running seven-day shifts and that team varies between four and ten people per day.
Our whole business revolves around whanaungatanga or kinship, so we ensure that our crew are genuine, authentic and friendly. Many of our staff are trained on the marae so they know how to look after people and ensure the hospitality they are extending is truly genuine.
There is definitely potential for growth on Kapiti Island but it depends on the experience. We can take up to 20 people on our overnight product and we would not want to take any more than that. The product itself lends itself to smaller numbers, not bigger numbers – it is an intimate experience rather than a high volume experience. There is potential for more nature walks, hiking, and other great bush and bird experiences based on what DOC says is the maximum number of permitted visitors. So, there is potential for growth and we will keep looking at that.
We would also like to develop other nature-based products around the lower part of the North Island. In particular, products that have a great story and there are a lot of places in the country that have fantastic stories attached to them.
The big question is, how do you convince people into the regions like, say, the Wairarapa, and how do you successfully connect a region like that with, say, Hawke’s Bay? That brings us to the issue of dispersal, which is a discussion the industry is having, although I would like to know who is actually driving that discussion.
Tourism New Zealand can play a role influencing regional and seasonal dispersal through their marketing but local and central governments and MBIE are vital when it comes to dealing with issues like infrastructure and development. It does concern me because if we are not careful around dispersal it could actually have a negative impact on the regions, and sooner than we might think too if we keep growing the way we have been.
We have certainly seen some tourism growth in the Kapiti Coast but it seems to be incremental and organic rather than planned in terms of an RTO or local government driving it. For our own small business, much of the growth has come about through the work we have carried out ourselves. The region has a small ratepayer base and there is not as much interest in the sector as we would like to see from local government – there is enthusiasm but it is hard to match it with resources.
Most of our business is still domestic, about 60%, coming from as far as Southland and the Far North. We rely heavily on word of mouth and social media, which has proven very effective for that market.
Our traditional international markets are Europe and the UK and we have seen steady growth from Holland, France and Germany, which are all markets we put a lot of time and energy into. We are not putting any work into the Asian markets at the moment but when we start developing other product in the Wellington region then we will definitely be looking at how we can grow that market. We have some ideas about how we would like to do that sometime in the next five years.
When I looked around the NZ Tourism Awards last week, I felt there were some great nature and eco-tourism operations in the country. But there are also some fantastic eco-tourism opportunities around New Zealand and it would just take some entrepreneurship to kickstart them. I wonder, are we doing as much as we can to bring them to life?

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