Chatham Islands offers 'overseas' holiday during Covid crisis

By Tess Brunton of RNZ

The Chatham Islands is the closest most New Zealanders can get to international travel without packing their passport.

The country's border is heavily restricted because of the Covid-19 crisis, and Chatham Islands tourism operators are hoping they'll see more Kiwis take a trip "overseas" to visit their archipelago.

Sitting in the South Pacific Ocean, more than 800km east of Christchurch, the islands are rugged, remote and home to just 600 people. Advertisement

Tourism on the island has been hit hard by the pandemic, which struck towards the end of the peak visitor season, but tourism operators hope things will soon turn around.

Flowerpot Bay Lodge is on Pitt Island, about 14km south of the main island, accessible by boat and plane.

Co-owner and operator Brent Mallinson said they lost between £30,000 and £40,000 in bookings when their season ended abruptly for lockdown.

He can't wait to reopen.

"The six weeks we effectively lost - the second half of March and April - is really some of our better months."

Those weeks often provided money to get through winter and the start of the next season, he said.

"Of course, that didn't happen so we're pretty keen to get back open again."

The Chatham Islands is an attractive destination with a lot to offer tourists, he said. Advertisement

"It's sort of like stepping back in time a little bit, 20 to 30 years in a good way.

So life is quite based around the tide and the wind, rather than the clock and the calendar. It has a look and a feel, it's rough and rugged and beautiful."

About 2000 people visit the Chatham Islands each year.

Chatham Islands Tours owner operator Kerry Fleming is feeling positive about visitors returning.

"I guess the unknown for everyone is how long it's going to take for people to feel comfortable moving and for the community here to feel comfortable with people coming and going."

She knows some businesses are considering whether to reopen their doors.

"We generally have a very quiet low season. I think some operators have been more prepared for this earlier, to close down, than others.

"So I believe that a lot of the operators here - well, I can definitely speak for myself, I'm ready to go when people turn up.

When the industry starts, we can pick up and move with it."

Work was also under way to extend the usual visiting season, she said.

Tourism Chatham Islands manager Jackie Gurden said interest was starting to return.

"Talking to the people that are taking tours over there now, they're all locking in and continuing with their tours. Talking to one of them, their trip is three quarters full already."

Tourism Chatham Islands 2019 strategic and business plan found the industry was open to doubling the number of visitors to the island over the coming years to meet accommodation occupancy targets, but only if it was sustainable and under the islanders' control.

The islands' economy relies on fishing, farming and tourism. Domestic tourism accounts for more than 90 per cent of the visitor market.

"The fact that people will be looking at where they holiday and it provides that holiday destination for them that in a sense is overseas, I think the impact is going to be one of potential growth," Gurden said.

"None of us know the outcomes of Covid, but certainly I think it does provide quite an opportunity for the Chathams."

Non-essential flights were cut since the first Friday of lockdown, but they have resumed under alert level 2.

As the sole flight provider, Air Chathams general manager Duane Emeny said lockdown hit the business hard.

"We were operating 120 scheduled services - that was passengers and cargo each week - and that reduced over level 4 to six services per week - that's just essential freight primarily to the Chatham Islands, so a huge impact on our business."

Air Chathams is offering three return passenger flights a week, but hasn't ruled out increasing the number if there's increased demand.

Northern beach, Chatham Islands.Northern beach, Chatham Islands.

Flights would work a bit differently in the wake of Covid-19, Emeny said.

"We're going to make it mandatory for all passengers and our flight crew to be wearing masks.

We feel that will provide a much safer environment and added to that, we'll be doing double the amount of aircraft cleaning that we do normally."

With international travel off the cards for the foreseeable future, the Chatham Islands hope New Zealanders will look closer to home for holidays.

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