Closure of iSite ‘disturbing’

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Tourism operators are baffled by Tourism Waitaki’s decision to close the Oamaru iSite and say the move may backfire.

The Waitaki District Council-controlled organisation announced on Tuesday the iSite would close permanently, as would the Omarama Information Centre.

Staff numbers would also be cut across its operations, from 29 full-time and part-time staff to eight. Five casual roles have been created.

The geopark pop-up shop in lower Thames St would be used to promote the district’s activities, and an Oamaru business, that was open seven days a week and in a central location, was being sought to do the same.

Tourism Waitaki general manager Margaret Munro said the Covid-19 pandemic had decimated Waitaki’s tourism industry, and the organisation was left with few options other than to restructure its operations, given it had lost 80% of its income.

“We hope we have taken it to a point where we can survive, given the current situation, but also grow back up from that structure again,” Mrs Munro said.

The organisation’s continued focus on the geopark attracted criticism this week, but Mrs Munro said it gave the district “a point of difference to anything else, at this stage, in the country”.

“Our focus is to continue with enhancing the district’s profile nationally and regionally and reimagining the visitor experience at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, along with supporting local tourism operators,” she said.

Mrs Munro said Tourism Waitaki could get some Government funding support, if it met eligibility criteria.

But the Oamaru iSite would be closed permanently, a move tourism operators have described as short-sighted.

Headfirst Travel co-owner Ralph Davies said the closure was “disturbing”.

“The visitor centre is key, not only for visitors coming in, but for operators to find out what is happening in the area. As a tourism operator, you’d be using them as a reference point to get some of that information.

“It’s pretty disappointing.”

Cycle Ventures owner Rob Connolly said he was similarly confused by the decision.

“I feel we need a point of contact in town when people arrive.

“So many domestic tourists go in there for information. I think it’s crucial we keep that at least. But, I can understand the Omarama one. That was always a bit of a gamble putting one up there, but . . . that iconic [Oamaru] iSite on the corner there is really important if you ask me.”

While Mr Connolly’s cycle tour business did its own marketing, it was also assisted by Tourism Waitaki. He was concerned that the organisation would not have the staff to continue to do that as effectively in the past, particularly in the lead-up to the summer season.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said Tourism Waitaki was faced with a “terrible situation” and ” sadly some very difficult decisions have had to be made”.

“I have been grateful for the dedication and hard work that the board has put in to ensuring Tourism Waitaki remains a viable business and that they have retained a structure that will continue to promote Waitaki,” he said.