Auckland’s under-construction International Convention Centre has suffered a devastating fire, prompted an urgent scramble to save the city’s calendar of major upcoming events.
As the blaze continued to burn this week, tourism bosses said it was too early to assess whether the damage would quash Auckland’s ability to host large-scale business events at a single venue from 2021, including the APEC Leaders Week in November 2021.
The fire, reportedly started by a construction worker’s blowtorch at around 1pm on Tuesday, created plumes of black smoke across the city prompting authorities to issue a health warning and caused CBD traffic gridlock.
St John Ambulance confirmed it transported one person to Auckland City Hospital in a serious condition around three hours after the fire began, with no reports of any deaths or other serious injuries from the blaze.
Around 100 firefighters worked through Tuesday and Wednesday battling difficult conditions to try and control the blaze, with Fire and Emergency workers expected to continue working on the site well into Thursday.
The centre’s developer, SkyCity, evacuated its famous neighbouring tower and its offices, casino and hotels near the construction site as accom providers rallied to accommodate displaced visitors.
Nick Hill, chief executive of the Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development, said on Wednesday: “It’s been heartening to see the accommodation sector band together to look after visitors displaced by the fire.
“Visitors who are due to come to Auckland in the next day or so should contact their travel provider to get an understanding as to whether their accommodation may be affected.”
Hill said that while the fire had prompted questions about Auckland’s ability to host major business events at a single venue from 2021 and beyond – particularly APEC Leaders Week events in November 2021 – the organisation would have to wait until the fire was fully extinguished for an accurate assessment of damage.
“As with any project of APEC’s magnitude, there are contingency plans in place around New Zealand’s and Auckland’s intended venues,” he said, confirming ATEED’s Auckland Convention Bureau was already working with the business events contacts regarding conferences confirmed for the centre.
“We will proactively work with event organisers to explore alternative options in the hope that we can still accommodate these events at other venues within Auckland, or look to hold these at another time when the centre is open,” he said.
“Auckland’s events industry has multiple world-class venues and the industry is well versed at dealing with venue amendments for a variety of reasons.
“We don’t anticipate that this will have material impact for other events scheduled to be held in Auckland outside of the NZICC, including the 36th America’s Cup.”
The $703 million conference centre, the biggest project under construction in New Zealand, was scheduled to open next year as a flagship tourism generator accommodating more than 3,000 delegates and including a new 300-room hotel.
It has been plagued by setbacks since work began on the site in 2015, running years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. CEO Graeme Stephens told an annual shareholder meeting last year: “This does remain a challenging project and we continue to deal with issues as they arise.”
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff told the New Zealand Herald the fire was “pretty distressing” and marked a massive step backwards for a facility predicted to provide a significant boost to the local visitor economy.
“We won’t know until there is a full assessment, but I can’t imagine this will take anything other than months to repair, construction put on hold and a lot will have to be torn down and started again,” he said.
SkyCity were approached for comment but did not respond by time of publication.