It’s been one year since a world-renowned travel guide placed Taranaki on the tourism map. Brittany Baker looks at whether being judged the world’s second best region has made a difference.
For the past decade Rob Needs has taken thousands of tourists from around the world to the slopes of Mt Taranaki on his mountain shuttle service.
They were the typical tramper-type of backpacker, he says. Those who were used to roughing it along steep and rocky terrain for the eight to 10 hours it takes to reach the summit and get back down again.
But a little more than a year ago the type of tourist changed. Needs found himself being approached by those who liked an easy stroll to take the perfect photo, those who would then continue their sightseeing elsewhere – in other words, the “high dollar tourist”.
And there were a lot of them.
“This time last year there was a bubble of people who came through,” Needs says.
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That bubble closely followed international travel guide Lonely Planet’s announcement naming Taranaki the second best region in the world to visit in 2017.
The publicity generated by that announcement was dramatic. In the year ended July 2016, Taranaki had been mentioned in just four international stories.
But in the year since the Lonely Planet announcement, that number has rocketed to 243, bringing Taranaki a wealth of publicity it could never afford to buy. “They [tourists] were in New Zealand, saw the article and said, ‘Oh, let’s visit New Plymouth’,” Needs says.
And a year later, he’s still seeing the effects as visitors come to see what Taranaki and its national park has to offer.
“The season has extended by at least a month,” he says.
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ
So, what is Lonely Planet and why was its blessing so important?
The company was founded in 1972 and is now the largest travel guide book publisher in the world – giving it real influence on tourists and tour operators around the globe.
Lonely Planet spokesperson Chris Zeiher says the guide specifically narrows in on “emerging, improved, topical or under-the-radar destinations for travellers to consider”.
“Generally, the destination is already starting to show signs of upward momentum with tourism numbers and we’re catching this rise at a very early stage,” he says.
There had already been plenty of investment in developing Taranaki’s visitor experience by the time the guide made its announcement and so determining who or what is responsible for any influx of tourists is not black and white.
Investments such as the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, which opened its doors in July 2015, and New Plymouth’s Coastal Walkway, that took millions of dollars and nearly a decade to complete, have all helped establish Taranaki as a genuine up and coming tourist destination.
And then there’s the likes of Jetstar pumping up the number of flights in and out of the province, the relatively new Novotel New Plymouth Hobson hotel, and those existing and much loved events such as the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular and Womad.
All of these, combined with the region’s natural landscapes, are what makes Taranaki the next “up and coming” destination, says Vicki Fairley, general manager marketing and tourism with Venture Taranaki, the regional development agency.
“There’s a lot of work that went on prior to Lonely Planet,” she says.
“And that’s the foresight of the local authorities into developing infrastructure.”
Despite that Fairley says the Lonely Planet title is something to be valued and something the region has just three years to capitalise on.
To help that New Plymouth District Council gave Venture Taranaki a $350,000 marketing campaign fund to raise awareness, prompt travel and lifestyle decisions and challenge any outdated perceptions of the region.
“The openings that it’s given us into the different markets, we’ll be able to continue to build on those,” Fairley says.
“Taranaki is just on that cusp of becoming a real fantastic tourist destination.”
The current upward tourism trend to Taranaki has been tracked by Statistics New Zealand. “Guest nights” – the time visitors spend in accommodation such as hotels and holiday parks – has shown steady growth since the Lonely Planet announcement, particularly among international tourists.
In the year ended September 2017, Taranaki welcomed approximately 308,045 visitors – about 20,000 more than in the same period the previous year.
Each visitor spends an average of two nights in the region – a total of 637,655 guest nights.
SIMON O’CONNOR/Fairfax NZ
However, it’s the number of international visitors that really shows a jump. There were 112,500 of these tourists who visited Taranaki in the year ended September 2017 – a 23.7 per cent increase compared to the previous 12 months.
In the month of September 2017, the number of visitors from overseas staying in the region spiked by 53.5 per cent to 6,767.
This significant growth in international visitors is an observable trend for every month since the Lonely Planet accolade was announced.
But is the region ready for potentially exponential tourism growth? Venture Taranaki’s chief executive Stuart Trundle believes we can be.
As of now the region is “having to react to the growth”, he says, and does not have a huge amount of capacity should tourism number boom.
“If we suddenly get a public holiday with a really good forecast in Taranaki, that extra 50 to 100 people actually puts real pressure on. We’re so finely balanced.”
But, Stuart adds, the visitor industry works in five and 10 year cycles, giving the region enough time to make those important investment decisions.
While some businesses have already seen a slight boost in visitor numbers, Trundle says it’s actually during the coming 12 months the region will see “some real linkages directly with Lonely Planet”.
“We can never compete against gateway destinations, but what we can be is a great secondary destination,” he says.
“What Lonely Planet gave us was legitimacy.”