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Tourist friendly . . . Tourism Waitaki general manager Margaret Munro. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

Margaret Munro, the former general manager at Tekapo astro-tourism attraction Earth & Sky, recently started in the same role at Tourism Waitaki, where she aims to grow the number of people visiting and staying in the district. Reporter Daniel Birchfield caught up with her.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from the other side of the Waitaki. I grew up on a farm on the Waitaki, in Ikawai, and spent my childhood around that area, so I’m very familiar with North Otago and the South Canterbury region.

What was childhood like for you?
It was good. You couldn’t get it any better, really. It was a great environment to be on a farm, and I guess life was reasonably simple compared to today’s environment. It had a different focus to what you have today with children’s lifestyles and expectations.

Where were you educated?
Waimate. I went to school there and had a year at the Timaru polytech, as it was known in those days. Following that, I basically lived in Christchurch for a year and then in Wellington. I had my first job opportunity at a computer company called Burroughs that did cash registers and that sort of thing. I was in customer services, initially, and after a wee while in that role, I moved into the finance area and started doing account administration and that sort of thing.

Where did you go from there?
I started a family after my time there so I had 10 years out of the workforce and raised four children – two girls and two boys. I came back into the workforce when the youngest was 4. By that stage, we’d moved back to the South Island and were in Fairlie. My husband has a teaching job at Mackenzie College and it was a great community to raise children in. I got a job at the Timaru hospital doing various things, and stayed with them for nearly 15 years.

How did you become part of the team at Earth & Sky?
At the time, I was commuting from Fairlie to Timaru, so that was a 45-minute drive each way, and with a young family, it was trying. My husband and I built a house in Tekapo, so that was the last two years of working at the hospital, and then I was communing an hour and a-quarter each way. I dropped my hours down to four days a week just because of that. I met one of the owners from Earth & Sky that had heard I was travelling back and forth .. he said that was crazy. They needed somebody in their business because they had lost an administrator, so they approached me to see if I’d be interested in having a role. That suited me because I could stop travelling. It was an ideal outcome. The general manager role there seemed to be a natural progression. I knew a lot about the company and where it was needing to go and to have that continuity was really important.

What appealed to you about the general manager’s role at Tourism Waitaki?
Having been involved in tourism a lot, and going to things like Trenz and other trade events, you see a lot of areas being represented, and the thought of being able to take the set of skills that I used at Earth & Sky and use them for a whole region was an inviting challenge for me. I guess it was a career opportunity to see if I can do some good with a bigger source of attractions than just one.

Have you set any goals you would like to achieve?
Ideally, if I can get an outcome similar to the result that Mackenzie, as a dark sky reserve, has achieved through tourism then I think everyone in the district will be satisfied that it’s achieved what it should achieve. Sustainability in tourism is really important to any business . . . picking things that are good and discarding things that don’t work.

What are your impressions of the district so far?
I’m extremely impressed. There’s plenty of potential and plenty of opportunity. Some of it is already being realised, but there’s still some room for big growth across the district, right from the top. The other thing I see as being important is the top of the Waitaki. It’s got a lot of potential .. the whole place has got a lot of ability to grow and be linked together.

What do you think makes the district special?
There’s probably a matrix of things there. Oamaru’s the cornerstone by the sea which has got its own theme around Victorian heritage. Up the valley, you’ve got the geological features, which are pretty amazing for this region. You’ve got the amazing lakes district, which has totally been overlooked as far as tourism is concerned. There are so many icons in this area that can be showcased.

So you consider the lakes district to have been a missed opportunity for tourism?
I have driven that road a few times now and it’s just empty. It amazes me because there’s beautiful scenery up there. The opportunities for fishing and boating are there and the dams are there. It’s an opportunity we have to explore further. It’s part of that journey for the Alps 2 Ocean. It’s more than just a cycle trail.

What do you think of the proposed geopark for the district?
It’s brilliant. It would be a massive coup, not only for Waitaki, but for New Zealand. I don’t think you should underestimate the power that would create. It will be just amazing and this district just lends itself so well to that whole philosophy of geology. Good on the council for their initiative and Vanished World for going down that path.

What does the future hold for tourism in Waitaki?
I think it’s very sustainable. You’ve got some very solid products that will remain here for a long time. It’s about getting the consistency of the businesses to be able to be there and open when the tourists are there, consistency of the product and the marketing strategy behind it all. It will be an easy sell. South of Oamaru is just as important too. My fear is there are areas that haven’t been discovered yet which could be full of added value.