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"Moving on . . . Tourism Waitaki general manager Jason Gaskill is leaving the organisation at the end of this month. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

Tourism Waitaki general manager Jason Gaskill finishes in the role on December 31. He arrived in Oamaru in September 2008 as manager at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, before taking on the top job at Tourism Waitaki in May 2013. Oamaru Mailreporter Daniel Birchfield sits down with him for a look back at his time in Waitaki and what the future holds.

Q: Going back to 2008, why did you apply for the job at the penguin colony?
It was different. How many times do you have an opportunity to run a penguin colony? At the time, I was working in Dunedin and the company I was working for did work for the Waitaki District Council and Tourism Waitaki. We did some work for the penguin colony and I thought it was a cool business. I thought the opportunity might not come again.

Q: Did you know much about Oamaru at the time?
I had spent a bit of time here for work purposes. My knowledge of Oamaru at the time was really only that which I had gained by spending a little bit of time here around work projects. I had come to the heritage celebrations once as well, so we had spent a little bit of time here .. just on an ad hoc basis, really.

Q: What were your impressions of the town once you had settled in?
It was the perfect place for families, in particular. It’s a comfortable place to be in and I mean that in every potential interpretation of the word. Everything is accessible. It didn’t take very long for our kids to feel comfortable here and the schools here are fantastic. When we arrived, all of our kids were in primary school and now we have got two that have left high school and two that are in high school. We have kind of gone through school life here and it’s been good. It kind of has a small-town feel without limitations.

Q: What kind of potential did you see the Waitaki having as a tourist destination?
I think the Waitaki district, anchored in part by Oamaru and some activities in Omarama, provides what a lot of travellers are looking for. It’s a very unique place and provides everything from snow-capped peaks to the beach within easy accessible driving distance. You’ve got world-class experiences, from skiing at Ohau to gliding at Omarama. If anyone wanted to get a snapshot of New Zealand in a week, you would have to travel no further than the Waitaki district. The more I travelled .. it became more and more apparent that you can do all of these things in basically a two-hour drive. That is beginning to be a lot of what the travelling public is looking for – sort of an opportunity to see some really unique stuff in an environment that maybe isn’t as frantic or busy as some of the main tourism centres.

Way back when . . . Mr Gaskill on duty at the penguin colony shortly after starting there in 2008. PHOTO: ODT FILES

Q: Why did you want to move into the role of Tourism Waitaki general manager?
There were just some changes going on at the time and the opportunity came up. I was asked to fill in, in the interim, while some of those changes were going on. At the end of that, I was offered the job. It was a logical progression from where I was at the colony into the general manager role.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of the job?
The staff. I think the team we have here at Tourism Waitaki is unparalleled with the commitment they have. Also, the work environment is enjoyable. It’s enjoyable to come to work and the team we have put together here is quite impressive. If you are looking at practical day-to-day things, being involved with Alps 2 Ocean has been pretty cool. Setting up Whitestone City was quite an achievement, and seeing the growth at the penguin colony has been too. Setting up the international science credentials with Philippa [Agnew, Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony research scientist] and seeing the work she has put in and what she has accomplished is wonderful. She has been able to progress the reputation down there with her PhD. If I was to look back and say that’s something I will forever be proud of being involved in, it would be working with Philippa to get her her PhD and really emphasising and shifting the attention of what’s going on at the colony on to that high-level, internationally benchmarked, globally recognised scientific work. Being a steward over a time when there was significant growth in the industry has been quite special.

Q: How do you think the district is performing as a tourism destination?
Quite well, actually. I think in the main, the district is performing very well and I think the business sector, particularly the tourism side, [has] a buoyancy that is kind of infectious. It’s quite an engaging industry to be involved in. I also believe they’re just beginning to scratch the potential that they can extract from the industry here. That, in part, is why it’s very important to start getting people with ideas, possibly new ways of looking at things that can come and push that stuff to the next stage of development and encourage and drive it. I think our new [district council] CEO, Fergus [Power] has some fantastic ideas and I think he’ll be a real asset.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the tourism industry?
Capacity. Just being able to manage the number of people that want to come here and providing services for all of them. Accommodation is the most obvious. We’ve got this glorious middle section from Duntroon to Omarama that we really need to get on to people’s radars, but getting people to turn instead of going straight can be a challenge. I think a lot of those issues are starting to be addressed. I think if the district fully addresses those capacity issues, that will kind of uncork the flow, and I think it’s a wise move, the council addressing some of that accommodation stuff at the harbour.

Q: What does the future hold for the Waitaki?
I think the Waitaki will be recognised as a unique, almost alternative kind of a destination for a lot of people looking for that something slightly out of the ordinary that’s at the same time both familiar yet completely foreign. When you walk into Oamaru, you see the perfect little New Zealand town, then you start to explore and you’ve got steampunk, the historic precinct and the history like Totara Estate. You’ve got world-leading wildlife facilities and that’s just in Oamaru. Then you’ve got the Waitaki Valley and places like Kurow, massive dams and some of the best wine and fishing in the world. I think what’s going to happen is that message is going to become so ingrained with the travelling public, it will be a draw.

Q: Why did you decide to stand down?
I think the timing was just really good, going into the district tourism strategy review with the council and the long term planning coming up. The timing is really good for someone that has a fresh set of ideas to bring to the development of the tourism industry here. Nine years is a pretty good run as well. There comes a time point when you have to stand back and say, I’ve invested a lot of myself into this and I’ve got it to where I believe we should have been.

Q: What are your plans now?
I think we’re going to end up spending a bit of time travelling and I’ve got a few projects I’ll look at working on. The next year might be a little bit in flux as we pursue some interests, but there’s no real concrete plans. A lot of former general managers get into consultation so that’s something that holds appeal. We’ll see.