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From the Regions: West Coast’s Jim Little

26 Sep 2017  By Contributor

The Oparara Arches at Karamea – one of six iconic attractions on the West Coast.

After winning both a Local Government NZ award and a prestigious NZ Tourism gong, Tourism West Coast’s CEO Jim Little tells us about building on the region’s successful brand, developing wilderness attractions, and why the RTO is seeking a big boost to its budget.

Jim Little

We are very pleased with the ‘Untamed natural wilderness’ brand. It has come together very, very well and not only does it align with 100% Pure NZ it also explains who we are not just where we are.
The West Coast region attracted around a million arrivals in the past year of which about 58% are international and 42% domestic. We’ve been able to handle that number quite well because our region naturally disperses our visitors; at the end of the day we are 620km long – the longest region in the country – so we have plenty of places to disperse people.
Almost 90% of the land in the region is part of the Department of Conservation estate and includes five national parks and a World Heritage park – we are definitely a wilderness.
Having said that, places like Punakaiki, the pancake rocks, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers have seen some serious congestion, although the powers that be like DOC have done a marvellous job managing the situation.
We are a very seasonal region but we are now starting to see more shoulder season business. That’s important because pushing out those shoulder seasons is a cornerstone of our strategy.
The West Coast has always been a very strong attraction for international visitors because of the glaciers and Punakaiki but until recently it has never really been on the bucket list for domestic holidaymakers. However, after running a domestic campaign targeting trail cyclists and walkers, we got a really good response out of Auckland which saw an increase in domestic arrivals of around 34,000 and a spending lift of around $9m.
We are part of Christchurch Airport’s ‘South’ initiative and that is currently promoting South Island driving tours to the Australian market. Over the past four or five years, we have had significant growth out of China as well. With Christchurch Airport, we went up to Beijing and Shanghai and Guangzhou. We now have a direct flight from Guangzhou with extra flights coming over summer so that market is looking good.
Younger, female travellers in small groups are a significant part of that market but also quite a few extended families are coming down as well and travelling independently. Quite a few of our key operators have employed Mandarin-speaking staff and our region was one of the first to conduct China ready projects and we have seen significant growth from that market.
That market has flattened off a bit this year though and I suspect a lot of the big groups that used to come through on low-cost budget tours have been priced out by the increase in hotel prices in New Zealand. Many of those groups have headed to relatively cheaper destinations in Asia like Thailand. Now in NZ, we are seeing more FITs and younger, smaller groups coming from China.
As we get more growth we are going to see more pressure but we’ve been allocated some significant budget for roading and the development of the attractions on the DOC estate, such as Punakaiki and Hokitika Gorge. The three councils in the region have also secured funding to expand and revitalise public toilet facilities.
We have some great accommodation offerings across the region, including some new four-star treetop chalets at the Rainforest Retreat at Franz Josef, but we could certainly do with some more hotels. New hotels in Greymouth, Hokitika and Franz Josef would certainly help meet demand in those regions. Admittedly, filling that accommodation for six or seven months of the year would be fine – filling them for the whole year is what we are working on.
We have put together a tourism strategy that goes out to 2025 and we will be going after a significant increase in our funding – more than $500,000 – to develop it. With the new funding we want to become a much more competitive and aggressive marketer and really follow in Tourism New Zealand’s footsteps in the international market in terms of expanding our shoulder seasons and dispersing our peak season arrivals.
We also want to crank up the domestic marketing through the West Coast Wilderness Trail the Old Ghost Road as well as specific events such as the whitebait and wild food festivals.
We have traditionally been funded by our three district councils and the charitable trust Development West Coast. But a recent regional growth study by MBIE has prompted us to seek more funds from DWC as tourism fits within the trust’s job growth mandate.
That funding will enable us to devote resources to destination management as well. At the moment we have two main icons, Punakaiki and the glaciers, but we want to increase that to help create dispersal. We want to bring in the Oparara Arches at Karamea, Lake Brunner near Greymouth, and upgrade the Hokitika Gorge with a new swingbridge. And, of course, we have the Haast World Heritage area to give us six key touchpoints for us to market.
When you add the product that supports those, like the TranzAlpine rail tour and the Great Coast Road, then it does start to look pretty good here. Because we are a wilderness area we do have great attractions and by working with DOC on joint ventures and securing funding together, it is all coming together nicely.

The West Coast has suffered over the years with industries like coal mining falling away, timber being pushed aside and the Holcim cement plant closing down. Deep sea fishing is now coming on strong and dairy farming is kicking back in again but it is tourism that has the best growth prospects in the medium term for the region.

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