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Pūkaha’s Emily Court: “We’re going from strength to strength”

18 Sep 2019  By Contributor

In our week-long special marking the 50th anniversary of Conservation Week, Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre’s general manager, Emily Court, talks about growth, diversification, funding challenges and attracting more young people into the tourism industry.

Emily Court

Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre is unique in that it’s almost two distinct businesses. One being conservation-based – as a captive breeding facility for endangered New Zealand birds, and the other being tourism and hospitality. Conservation work started here in the early 1960s and the tourism and hospitality business has been running since 1993.

We have really strong support from our local communities, both in Wairarapa and Tararua – we’ve got a foot in both districts and Pūkaha is very much a part of these communities.

We have a large number of domestic tourists, especially during the holidays, and we get a lot of visitors driving through in motorhomes. The balance of international and domestic visitors fluctuates depending on the time of the year, but on average the split would be 60% domestic/40% international.

Located on State Highway 2 means attracting international visitors is challenging but the number of overseas visitors is growing.

The 942-hectare national wildlife centre operates on crown land and we have 30 staff with numbers over summer.

The ownership of the organisation is quite complex. The land was crown owned and awarded back to the local iwi, Rangitāne o Wairarapa, as part of their Treaty settlement. In 2014, the iwi made the decision to gift the land back to the crown – a very special gesture – so the organisation that is entrusted with protecting the land and running the conservation and tourism sides of the business is an incorporated society.

The Pūkaha, Mount Bruce board own the assets on the land and run the business. We work closely with iwi, who are represented on the board, in growing and developing the business.

We offer general admission and guided tours and have a new suite of tours that launched last week. These new products were developed based on visitor feedback and demand.

We have a new Cultural Tour – Te Hikoi o Pūkaha – a Family Tour that is well suited to younger children, a Photography Tour (we have two incredible photographers on our staff who take photographers into the backcountry to photograph wildlife), and a Ranger for a Day Tour, for the conservation-focused – visitors can spend the day working with one of the team rangers.

Our organisation continues to grow and develop and we’re going from strength to strength with visitor numbers up 26%.

This time last year we launched a new brand and website and hosted a community open day where we invited people to come and see the work we’ve been doing on our branding.

Our main challenges are cash and people. We have many ideas and projects in the pipeline to improve our visitor experience, but we have to be patient and pace the improvements according to available cash and people power to implement them.

We do get a lot of support through different funding agencies, local government and donations, but sometimes our progress in getting through projects is slower than we’d like.

We are currently working on a significant and exciting project that has wide-reaching benefits across the regions. We hope to be able to make further announcements soon.

The success of the commercial tourism business enables the conservation work we do in the forest but we do reply on top-ups from fundraising, donations and other funding support.

We love the direction Tourism New Zealand is taking with the Tiaki Promise. The focus on nature and teaching our visitors about New Zealand’s natural environment fits perfectly with what we do, our values and New Zealand’s values. We think it is the right approach.

I worry about the issues around freedom campers and the reactions that communities have had. I’d like our industry to find ways to be able to open our arms to every kind of tourist – from freedom campers to high-end visitors, whilst ensuring all visitors understand how important nature is to us and how to respect and treat the New Zealand environment.

Looking at the industry as a whole, I’d like to see tourism promoted a valuable career option for our young people. From what I’ve observed, tourism seems to be seen as a subject for the less academic and ambitious students. There are great opportunities for young people to have as successful a career in tourism as any other industry.


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