Dive! Tutukaka’s Jeroen Jongejans on 27 years in the diving business, the environmental sustainability challenges, and the importance of a commitment to destination development.
The Dive Tutukaka business was formed 20 years ago by the amalgamation of a couple of dive operators in the Tutukaka area. Through amalgamating the businesses, we became large enough to stop marketing ourselves separately and focus on marketing as a destination. This proved to be a really successful strategy.
With a team of 65 staff during the high season and around 10 staff during the winter months, the business delivers two different products. We offer world class diving experiences for the global diving fraternity and a ‘Perfect Day Ocean Cruise’ for non-divers, snorkellers, kayakers and sightseers.
We’ve just opened our new and improved dive shop which is focused on delivering improved customer service, better opportunities for our staff and a better environment to work in. Moving to the new shop has kept us very busy and we are excited about the improvements we can now offer our customers.
Our customers are 50% domestic and 50% from international markets. We have visitors from 50 – 60 different countries with the bulk of our international customers coming from European countries: Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, France, and Italy. We also have customers from the US and Canada and we’re starting to see more from China and India.
Diving is a niche product but fortunately, it’s a large niche. The diving fraternity travels all around the world to tick off the top diving destinations from their bucket lists. The Poor Knights Islands are internationally renowned as an iconic diving destination, so we have year-round demand from customers whose travel plans are generally not affected by economic downturns. We are very fortunate in that sense.
We’re like any other small to medium sized tourism operation – we have a lot of challenges. Seasonality is one of our main challenges and we’ve worked hard to broaden the shoulder seasons a little. There is also the challenge of visitor dispersal. As the number of visitors to New Zealand increases, we’re not necessarily seeing the spectacular percentage growth of visitors through the regions.
Northland as a region is a unique proposition. Getting more visitors to come here is dependent on marketing and destination development – an aspect we’re focusing on in our new strategy. Regional destination development is really important and at the moment it seems to be a bit of a haphazard process as to how destinations get developed.
We’ve also worked hard over that time to slowly build up the awareness of people about the Poor Knights Islands. That awareness is now established in New Zealand and around the world, but there was never a clear strategy from a local or regional government department focused on developing destinations around Northland.
It’s usually the operators who take on a fair amount of risk and put a lot of work into assisting with destination development. The operators often reap the rewards but the whole community does too. People don’t quite understand what it takes to develop a destination. There are so many aspects to it. Elements like the awareness of touring routes, the awareness of the wholesalers that make the bookings, the quality of the roading, the delivery of an excellent experience when people get here.
When we started the business, 20 years ago, we were committed to ensuring an excellent experience for visitors seven days a week. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be open all the time – especially during the winter – but it’s part of what we deliver. We ensure that people will never be disappointed.
Most businesses make money 3-4 months of the year, break even 3-4 months of the year and lose money 3-4 months of the year. That’s just part and parcel of the commitment you make to the industry, your staff and to the community. Our boats are completely full for about 3-4 weeks in summer and in winter, very occasionally, we’ll take one person out – which works out as a very lucky day for them. It’s always a bit of a juggle, but you have to take a punt, make it work and look at different strategies to get more clients. There’s a lot of maintenance required for our business and winter time is suitable for that.
The challenges with seasonality are focused around retaining quality and getting the right people on board who understand the product and can deliver an excellent experience. We’re fortunate with staffing in that we’re a sexy industry. The diving industry is an exciting one, and we find there are students, who are qualified dive instructors, that are keen to work in conjunction with their study through the summertime. We often get marine biology students who are very intelligent and passionate about the environment working with us so we’re very lucky – and they often return to work with us in subsequent years.
We’re committed to providing opportunities for our local community and have developed an initiative for young people to gain experience and get into the diving industry. Dive Tutukaka has an arrangement with the local schools (during the summer months) offering students jobs as wash crew for 3-4 hours after school. The students help with general duties after the boats return each day. They help wash the wetsuits, carrying the oxygen tanks and put gear and equipment away after the trip.
If the students show interest, we help them develop their diving skills, assist them to get their diver’s ticket and then they are able to come out and help on our boats, gaining experience and an understanding of our company culture. Some students go on to become diving instructors and skippers. We’ve seen quite a few students who started as wash crew excel to the superyacht industry as captains and senior officers. And the nice thing about that is that we remain one big whanau. The initiative works beautifully and seeing our young people develop fills us with pride.
Having been in business for 27 years, I’m now starting to see the next generation coming through as well – the children of students who started out with us – which is great. We’re not an ordinary business. Whilst profit building is very important to keep things going, so is our social commitment to our community and to the environment.
Another key challenge is the environment. As population growth continues to increase, the impact on the planet and the oceans has been destructive. The volume of plastic, nitrogen and rubbish that makes it into the ocean is detrimental.
Over the last decade, as well as pollution, we’ve seen changes in weather patterns, fishing practices and the levels of acidification of the ocean all combine to create even more risk to our marine environment. The ocean is a great absorber of carbon dioxide, but the ecosystem needs to be healthy and the health of our oceans is rapidly deteriorating. We’ve been looking at the impact of over-fishing with certain species and the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, that people have – and the reality is it’s never been right.
We have been very strong supporters of increasing the protection of our marine environment. When we started 20 years ago the Poor Knights Islands were only 5% protected, and now they have 100% protection.
Looking more broadly, a recent study on the state of the oceans, published by academics from the University of York, Oxford University and Greenpeace, concluded that to regain adequate levels of health in the oceans we need to protect 30% of waters by 2030. In New Zealand, only 4% of our ocean is currently protected. There is so much more work we need to do.
There is huge potential for developing new marine products in New Zealand but unfortunately, there is no ministry for marine protection or a clear strategy for marine protection to lead the way to sustainable growth.
A strategic overarching approach is needed from central government and this is something we would really like to see a commitment to. It would be revolutionary if we could all stop working in silos, take a global view on what changes need to be made and put plans in place to protect 30% of New Zealand’s oceans by 2025. We need to lead, innovate and become good ancestors.
Jeroen Jongejans spoke to the Ticker‘s Jane King. If you’d like to contribute to our An Operator’s View column, contact email@example.com.
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