With international borders tentatively reopening ahead of a planned full reopening in October, the New Zealand tourism sector is still in a state of limbo as the pandemic continues to bring uncertainty.

For businesses that rely heavily on the tourism market, it’s an incredibly challenging time. We spoke with three businesses about how they are dealing with the unpredictability and whether domestic tourism can sustain their operations until international tourists are welcomed back fully.

Backyard Roadies: Low overheads, high flexibility

Having founded Backyard Roadies mid-pandemic, Jason Goodson has been 100 per cent reliant on domestic tourism to fuel his road trip venture – but the continued uncertainty around border restrictions and the ever-present threat of lockdowns continues to present significant challenges.

And, of course, customers who may be interested in tours face the same challenges as Jason does.

“We’ve had immediate lockdowns enforced when we’ve been in the middle of a trip, so we’ve had to establish processes for that,” Jason says. “For customers, it’s a worry – not only travelling, but then having to go into lockdown and the trip being cancelled.”

Backyard Roadies

While some travel and tourism providers are offering refunds in the form of credit should COVID cause cancellations, Backyard Roadies offers customers full refunds, no questions.

While helping customers to manage the external unpredictables, Jason’s focused on controlling what he can internally – overheads. Running a very lean operation, he has kept his overheads purposefully low to enable flexibility.

“I don’t have any assets, I don’t have an office, I don’t have vehicles to pay off and all of my staff are casuals, so if I need to go into hibernation I can,” Jason says.

Looking ahead, he hopes borders open up fully sooner rather than later.

“Australia’s opening to the world and the rest of the world’s going to bypass us – it’s going to miss out on a lot of revenue,” Jason argues. “Domestic tourism has helped some tourism businesses stay afloat, but it’s just not enough.”

Haka Tours: New travel ideas for internationals in NZ

International tourists were 98% of Haka Tours’ traditional customer base – the company had to shift quite a lot. And, with restrictions and border closures continuing without any true guarantee of reopening, General Manager Eve Lawrence says business continues to be impacted by border closures and a lack of clear information

While pre-pandemic, the average tour length was 16 days, Haka Tours has created new trips over shorter periods of time to cater for those non-New Zealanders who are still in the country.

Haka Tours 1

“We’ve really put a focus on all of those international individuals who are either stuck here and can’t get home, or those people from overseas who now live here,” Eve explains.

“We’ve created shorter tours, around five nights, visiting some more remote regions that people potentially haven’t had the chance to go to – for example, The Catlins, Stewart Island, the remote West Coast, and we’ve also put a focus on cycling and hiking tours.”

From a pre-pandemic average of 60-70 tours per month, Haka Tours operated nine in February 2022. And, while the business kept on top of overheads, it had to do so through restructuring and redundancies, and Eve says the uncertainty continues to wreak havoc across the sector.

“We’re haemorrhaging business to Australia,” she says.

Shotover Jet: Long-term mindset, local focus

Shotover Jet in Queenstown has been on the to-do list for international visitors for many years, but the pandemic has forced the popular experience to cater purely to the domestic market.

“We’ve had to reduce prices to meet the domestic market. And we’ve seen incredible domestic support, which has been heartening,” explains Jolanda Cave, General Manager of Jet Boat Operations.

“Over the past two years, we’ve had the opportunity to refine every aspect of what we do and to re-invigorate our customer experience, and our focus going forward will remain on the domestic market, which is our safe and strong market.”

Shotover Jet

Part of that customer experience is Shotover Jet’s uniqueness, something the company has decided is critical long-term.

“We have a long-term plan to remain true to our iwi values, become a more premium experience and incorporate more Ngāi Tahu storytelling,” says Jolanda.

“This is our point of difference and what makes us unique. This is what will have customers coming back again and again.”

Jolanda says Shotover Jet has always worked hard to connect with the community, but never has this been more important than the past two years.

On ‘Locals Day’, for example, Queenstown residents and workers booked at reduced prices, with proceeds going to the Queenstown Lakes District Hospital Foundation.

“We have focused on being a genuine supporter of our local community,” says Jolanda.

While the complete focus for Shotover Jet is now on domestic tourism, Jolanda is prepared for uncertainty.

“We expect the coming year to be another uncertain and challenging time; the key for us is to be agile and maintain a long-term strategy and mindset,” she says. “We’ve shown over the past two years that we can adapt, and we will continue to pivot the business as we need to.”