THE coming Great Walks season will be make or break for many Fiordland tourism operators.
The area was hit by widespread flooding in February last year before the Covid-19 pandemic crippled the tourism sector.
Three of the country’s 10 Great Walks are in the area and the first bookings for Department of Conservation (Doc)-operated huts on the tracks opened on Tuesday morning.
It took just 15 minutes on Tuesday for Doc accommodation on the Milford Track to fill up for the entire six-month season.
The season opens from late October to late April, and only 40 beds are available each night for the three-night tramp.
Last year, when border restrictions meant the walk was only accessible to people living in New Zealand, it sold out in 45 minutes.
Doc heritage and visitors director Steve Taylor said he had never seen anything like it.
“Really, we’ve seen some unprecedented demand on the Great Walks, particularly for the Milford Track, which in previous years at this stage we would have seen at about 95% of the track being sold out.
“This year, within 15 minutes, it was completely sold out.”
The Heaphy and Rakiura tracks also went on sale on Tuesday and the seven other Great Walks were offered yesterday and today.
“There were about 6700 people making online bookings in that first 30 minutes, so the demand is incredible,” Mr Taylor said.
“These are outstanding experiences, great landscapes, breathtaking waterfalls and rainforest, and they’re trips of a lifetime, so it’s inevitable that some people will miss out, but that’s how we manage the quality of the experience and minimise the impact of people in these areas.”
It was good news for the area’s tourism operators.
Fiordland Historic Cruises manager Adam Butcher said the coming Great Walks season would be crunch time for many.
“We’re at a point now where it’s just a numbers game.
“At some point if the numbers don’t change in our favour then operators will not be able to continue like they’ve expected.”
The coming season was critical – “more than perhaps is being made known”.
Mr Butcher said he had picked up work as a tradesman because while the customers had stopped, the bills had not.
Fiordland Jet co-owner Chris Adams said the boost was desperately needed.
“[It’s] way worse than last year.
“Last year was actually not all bad because once people had got out of lockdown, Kiwis started travelling.
“This year they’ve done a lot of their travelling in the summer and they’re obviously waiting to see what happens in Australia so they can travel there.
“Or they’ve spent their money and they’re sitting at home for winter or waiting for ski season.”
Compounding tourism operators’ pain was a lack of staff, Mr Adams said.
He was concerned that when visitors did finally show up, smaller operators might not be able to capitalise.
The Government and Doc needed to do more to support operators during the quiet season, he said.
Using the area’s Great Walks as cycle tracks during those times would be a good start.
For those who missed out on Doc’s accommodation on the Milford Track, there were still options.
Ultimate Hikes general manager Noel Saxon said his company still had spots available on its guided tours, including the Milford and Routeburn tracks.
It was hoped the nearby Hump Ridge Track would become New Zealand’s 11th Great Walk in the next couple of years.