Small steps towards recovery for Christchurch tourism

This proposed redevelopment of the Avon River is one of many initiatives designed to revive Christchurch’s tourism industry. AAP

Last Friday marked two years since the earthquake which devastated the Christchurch CBD, and caused the death of over 180 people. The quake destroyed or severely damaged thousands of homes and businesses.

One of the main economic casualties of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake has been the tourism, hospitality and events industries. Two years on, the challenges remain obvious.

The 37 hectares of the CBD is still a “red zone” with heavily restricted access. The 2011 quake destroyed or damaged nearly all of Christchurch’s larger CBD hotels. Prior to quake there were 4,200 hotel rooms in the city’s CBD. Two years later, there are 1500.

While room numbers in motels, caravan parks and backpacker accommodation are rising, many are filled with construction workers and tradespeople engaged in reconstruction. They are also home to some residents still unable to resume life in their earthquake damaged homes. While motel owners are thriving with full houses, there are few places for tourists to stay in Christchurch.

The 2011 earthquake also destroyed the city’s convention centre, which could cater for up to 2,000 delegates, leading to convention organisers being forced to relocate major events outside the city. Earthquake damage to the city’s main football stadium resulted in Christchurch missing out on the benefits of hosting major sporting events- most notably the 2011 World Cup Rugby matches and the super 12 rugby fixtures of 2012.

However, there is also positive news. In February, Christchurch hosted 200 delegates from 15 countries for the Council of Australasian University Tourism and Hospitality Educators (CAUTHE) annual conference at Lincoln University on the outskirts of Christchurch - the largest conference held in the city since the earthquake. Appropriately, one of the key issues discussed at the conference was post-crisis tourism reovery. Seven of the papers presented by tourism academics at the conference focussed on the impact of the 2011 earthquake on tourism to Christchurch.

In his opening keynote address, Tim Hunter, CEO of Christchurch and Cantebury Tourism, gave a cautious assessment that the recovery of tourism in the Christchurch and surrounds would be far more of a marathon than a sprint.

One indication of this is that the designated red zone is gradually shrinking. The first of the newly constructed CBD hotels, the Christchurch Ibis, opened in late 2012, and several new hotels are scheduled to open during 2013. The re:START mall, a shopping mall of 45 shops, constructed from the shells of shipping containers, is now one of the most popular shopping areas for both locals and visitors.

Vacant blocks created from demolished buildings have been used by local artisans and entrepreneurs as art centres, free libraries, bars and entertainment areas. Christchurch’s “pop up city” phenomenon has earned the city a place on Lonely Planet’s must visit cities for 2013. The historic Anglican Cathedral which dominated the centre of the city and crumbled during the 2011 quake is being temporarily replaced by the construction of a church which is being dubbed the Cardboard Cathedral.

The one major element of tourism infrastructure that was undamaged by the 2011 earthquake is Christchurch’s recently refurbished international and domestic airport. The rebuilt airport terminals were opened just weeks before the earthquake and ensure that Christchurch remains as the key airline gateway to New Zealand’s South Island.

But one of the city’s challenges remains enticing Australian travellers — traditionally the dominant international source market — to return.

While most international source markets (notably the Chinese) were returning to Christchurch and the Canterbury region, the Australian market has remained sluggish. This is despite quirky approaches such as the temporary importation to Christchurch of Australian tourism attractions such as Goulburn’s Big Merino and Queensland’s Big Pineapple.

By September 2012, the number of Australians visiting New Zealand has enjoyed slight growth, but the number of Australians visiting Christchurch and Canterbury was just over half of the pre-earthquake levels.

Two words that best sum up the Christchurch approach to the recovery of tourism are patience and resilience.

The recovery is still heavily dependent on the reconstruction of critical infrastructure, but until hotels, conventions centres and sporting facilities are rebuilt, Christchurch’s major role for tourism is to promote itself as the gateway to the magnificent and completely intact scenic and experiential wonders of New Zealand’s South Island.

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