Remember, only a few years ago, when the majority of our tourists arrived in town on a bus, parked outside the i-Site, used the public toilets and were gone again in half an hour?
There were discussions with those companies at the time, advocating a longer stay in town.
Tour companies had standard responses: “It takes 18 months to change an itinerary and anyway if we could change it, there’s not enough accommodation in Oamaru for an overnight stay”.
When Steampunk HQ opened in 2011, we would stand outside and speak enthusiastically to almost every traveller who happened to venture past, lured over by the sight of our crazy train engine billowing steam and fire and emitting loud eerie sounds.
We were interested in each and every one of these travellers and we asked them lots of questions – “Where are you from?”, “what are you doing in Oamaru?” and “would you like to have a look inside this weird, wacky world of Steampunk HQ?”.
Travellers loved Steampunk HQ, they loved our town – we were a little slice of paradise away from tourist hotspots. Invariably, they wished they could stay longer and experience more of the uniqueness our town and region had to offer.
Then, almost overnight it seemed, the tourism industry as we knew it changed. World tourism boomed!
The boom was fuelled by social media and travel bloggers, who saturated the internet with stories and images of the most beautiful places you just had to visit.
Airlines expanded their travel routes and flights became more affordable.
Rental cars and camper vans became the preferred means of travel.
Airbnbs opened up everywhere.
People wrote on Trip Advisor about their experiences.
Out-of-the-way destinations were discovered.
It happened rapidly and without much planning or foresight as to its implications.
Booming visitor numbers brought issues and, along with that, bad press – overcrowding, freedom camping concerns, bad driving, pollution, pressure on areas of natural beauty and significance. Invariably there was a price to pay.
We lost our clean green image. Locals became a little resentful and not as openly friendly as they once were towards visitors.
Our geographical location away from the inland tourist route from Mt Cook to Queenstown saved the Waitaki from over-tourism. In fact, there’s still room to grow our visitor numbers here from May through until November.
If we’re mindful of what’s happened elsewhere and we specifically target a “quality” traveller who appreciates what we have to offer, stays longer and spends more, then we can keep growing tourism here.
It’s important we don’t spoil the integrity and beauty our town and region has to offer – we definitely don’t want to be the next Queenstown, and we don’t need to copy others.
What we already offer is extremely appealing.
We’re in an awesome location and we have a wonderful variety of activities that can be enjoyed year-round, including gliding, hunting and fishing, the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail, wine trails, mountain biking, water sports and so forth.
Oamaru itself is a gem. It’s a place to park up your car and explore. Nowhere else in the world can you experience little blue penguins in their natural habitat, crazy quirky steampunk, a picturesque harbour and a working Victorian town all within a two-hour walk.
No longer do we need to stand outside Steampunk HQ and lure people inside. We have been discovered; and yet we are still excited for the future of our business and the many possibilities that still exist for tourism here in this beautiful region.
★ Jan Kennedy is the manager of Steampunk HQ and a Waitaki Tourism Association board member.