Tourism Waitaki general manager Margaret Munro.

What impact opening up a transtasman travel bubble will have on the Waitaki tourism industry is not known.

Tourism Waitaki general manager Margaret Munro said indications from Tourism New Zealand so far were the first people to take advantage of the loosened restrictions would be friends and family, as opposed to tourists.

“Although I see in the media, there’s been quite heavy bookings to New Zealand, so that’s good.”

Although there were no specific figures on how many Australians had visited the Waitaki district in the past, about 15% to 18% of visitors to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony each year were Australians.

Tourism New Zealand would be encouraging tourists to visit the regions, as well as the main centres, she said.

“I think that’s important … and we’re all for that, too.”

International travel would carry with it a “bit of a calculated risk” for some time, she said.

“Of course, we’ll be welcoming our Australia counterparts with arms wide open and just hope there are systems in place for both Australia and New Zealand to ensure it is a safe environment for those who travel.”

At a Waitaki District Council meeting last week, Mrs Munro and Tourism Waitaki board chairman Mike McElhinney spoke about the impact of Covid-19 on the local tourism sector, on presentation of its half-year report to December 2020.

Mr McElhinney said Covid had a significant impact on operations, and the organisation was forced to move quickly to “mitigate loss”.

Total operating revenue from the penguin colony was down $763,406 (77.68%) on the same six-month period in 2019 and visitor numbers were down 78%. Core operating costs had been scaled back by 36.85%.

A required restructuring was not “a pleasant thing to undergo”, but it was what the market dictated and something the board was forced into, due to circumstances beyond its control, he said.

He spoke of the success Mrs Munro had in securing Government funding to ensure the entity remained afloat.

“And with a lot of hard work and a bit of slashing and burning, we’re going to be delivering up a result for you in the black this financial year.”

On March 19, last year, the decision was made to close the Oamaru iSite, Omarama Information Centre and to withdraw financial support from the Kurow Information Centre, Mrs Munro said.

The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony closed to the public for three months, and then reopened at restructured hours. It remained open seven days but day tours had been removed.

Two grants from a government financial support scheme relieved pressure on operations.

The Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme (Stapp) funding of $400,000 to Tourism Waitaki in August last year, and $500,000 to the penguin colony over two years, relieved pressure on operations, Mrs Munro said.

An Oamaru and Waitaki visitor centre reopened in Oamaru on October 7, and six months of rent relief from the council had helped alleviate those costs.

The Waitaki Whitestone Geopark relocated to the same site at the end of last year.

It had been possible to carry the cost of the visitor centre only because of Government funding. But if that funding was not extended into the next financial year, the future was uncertain, she said.

Stapp funds also allowed all staff to return to full-time work, and allowed for two new roles to be created – a part-time destination management facilitator and a full-time PR and communications adviser, both of whom began in October last year.

The money also allowed Tourism Waitaki to collaborate with its neighbouring regional tourism operators (RTOs).

“Tourism Waitaki has had an operation structure that is unique in New Zealand, having its own tourism attraction to help sustain its operating costs for the RTO, in the penguin colony,” Mrs Munro said.

“That model worked fabulously, until we had an international pandemic, and now it’s working against us, compared to most other RTOs in New Zealand.”