Southern comings and goings
While Queenstown continues to break all previous records for passenger numbers through its new terminal, both Christchurch and Dunedin are moving along as well, in line with marked changes in tourism patterns. The days of large groups of Asian visitors spending significant time travelling by coach through both islands of New Zealand seems to have ended.
With the downturn in the Japanese economy and the rapid rise of a substantial Chinese middle class, more and more Chinese are arriving in the country, many of them entering at Christchurch, for short stays where the visitors are interested in the southern lakes district and shopping.
Despite the problems wrought by the earthquakes, Christchurch International Airport is busy and going forward. Increasing passenger numbers through the facility and strong tourism growth forecasts are prompting the airport to begin work on a second hotel on the campus to complement the newly upgraded Sudima Hotel.
Chief commercial officer Property and Commercial, Blair Forgie, says a feasibility study will consider developing a quality airport hotel near the terminal, in response to record growth in international airline seats, increasing passenger numbers and New Zealand’s very strong tourism growth outlook.
“Christchurch Airport is the gateway to the South Island and our aeronautical growth, including 770,000 more seats added by new and existing airline customers over two years, has led us to think about additional short stay hotel accommodation,” he says.
“Developing a second hotel at the airport is one way we can set our airport, our city and the South Island up for successfully getting its share of the tourism growth.”
Mr Forgie says the proposed hotel is likely to be 200 to 300 rooms and will be built in two stages, with the first targeted to open in 2017–18.
“Before the quakes, Christchurch had around 4000 hotel rooms and the airport welcomed around 6m passengers a year. Today the city has 2202 hotel rooms and the airport is on track to welcome around 6.3m passengers this year, with more growth to come. The major markets driving our growth are Australia, China and the US, and those visitors expect to be able to choose hotel accommodation.
“Statistics show Canterbury saw 13 per cent more visitor nights in the year to June 2015 and we’re still New Zealand’s fastest growing entry point for Chinese travellers.
“We have strong growth from existing carriers and two new Asian airlines flying here from this summer. Those Asian flights land here in the evening and we have increasing numbers of Australian visitors arriving at night—both groups expect choice in hotel accommodation.”
In the meantime Dunedin Airport is also starting to go forward. Ewan Wilson’s Kiwi Air pioneered no-frills and cheaper flights to Australia in 1995 before predatory competition from Air NZ and its subsidiary Freedom Air forced it from the skies.
Then along came Ansett NZ (later Qantas NZ) and Origin Pacific and competition to Christchurch and Wellington. There were Freedom Air direct flights to Sydney, a weekly service to Melbourne, the continuing link to Brisbane and even, for a while, flights to Coolangatta on the Gold Coast.
By July 1996 Dunedin had 10 flights a week to Australia, with Freedom Air in the mid-2000s having six. In 1995 Wellington-based Queenstown Air took off with a Wellington-Queenstown-Dunedin link. Things were looking good, but this service failed, along with another service to Queenstown in 2000, and everything seemed to go downhill from there.
Freedom Air routes were taken over by parent company Air NZ from March 2008, but while Dunedin was supposed to reap the benefit, according to the airline, this emphatically did not happen and even the successful summer flights to Sydney were discontinued in 2014.
Dunedin was out on a limb—again. City leaders have never forgotten how the southern city was once the most vigorous in New Zealand because of the economic stimulation of the gold rushes. This vigour was lost for a number of reasons, local atrophy being a major contributor.
These days Dunedin City leaders are only too well aware that quality and economic air links are important for business and lifestyle. This is especially so given Dunedin’s remoteness from the bustling north Suitable air links encourage students to the university, a cornerstone of the local economy as well as stimulus to a vigorous manufacturing and commercial environment. Tourism is also crucial to the city’s economy.
Dunedin believed it was ignored by the aviation industry, with services and low prices focused on the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch sectors and those cities’ links with Australia. Queenstown joined in and Dunedin suffered.
It is not surprising, therefore, that southern people embraced the competition from Jetstar for its daily flight to and from Auckland when it began in July 2011. For the same reason Jetstar’s new service to Wellington is likely to be supported. The flight times, however, being towards the middle of the day will not be so attractive to business people who often prefer flights early and late.
But they will draw strongly on other parts of the market, even if Air New Zealand dominates the premium end and has links to the capital several times a day, every day.
Given the size of Jetstar and its backing as a Qantas subsidiary, as well as its measured and careful expansion around New Zealand, there must be optimism the service will last. Operating three times a week, it is not a frontal assault on Air New Zealand and the two should be able to coexist on the route.
At the same time there has been the introduction of Kiwi Regional Air to Dunedin, operated by Ewan Wilson of former Kiwi Air. There has been little support for that airline’s Dunedin–Queenstown service, however, and Wilson, not prepared to fly on and hope and citing weather as well as low passenger numbers, pulled the plug on 24 November with the last flight at the end of the month.
It was a curious situation. There are many personal and business ties between the centres, and the chance for accountants, lawyers, architects, medical specialists and the like to avoid the long road trip should be attractive.
It may well be a culture factor, with locals not really accepting an air link, being too used to the familiar road route and knowing they will have their own transport at the end of the journey. It may well be that Dunedin people use Queenstown Airport as a closer stepping stone to Australia rather than Christchurch or Auckland (it can often be cheaper to fly to Australia from Dunedin via Auckland than via Christchurch).
- Report by Peter Owens, photography supplied.
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