Predictions of lengthy road closures following a landslide south of Franz Josef have been labelled damaging by local tourism operators gearing up for peak season.
The comments were made by Westland mayor Bruce Smith, who said he had been told at a Civil Defence briefing that Sunday’s landslip following heavy rains at Mt Hercules, between Harihari and Whataroa, would close the road until the end of January.
However, the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) says it aims to have State Highway 6 re-opened by Christmas or soon after, meaning the tourism region will be back on track for the majority of the summer break. It estimates the road south of Franz Josef will be open by the end of the week.
Almost 1,000 tourists were originally stranded in the West Coast town, some choosing to leave by helicopter or plane while others waited for access roads to reopen.
“We’re a bit stunned today and it’s fair to say it’s extremely bad news for our tourism sector,” Smith said in the wake of the landslide.
“The big problem is that Mt Hercules, our main road, is going to be closed for weeks, it’s going to devastate our tourism sector.”
He also said damage was worse than that caused by landslips in March, which saw the Waiho Bridge washed away and took two months to repair.
Ashley Cassin, chair of the Glacier Country Tourism Group representing more than 100 local tourism businesses, said some operators “took large scale offence” at the mayor’s words, which have been widely reported by the national and international media.
“I would suggest that the comments would be more damaging that what mother nature herself has dealt us,” he told Stuff.
Cassin said some businesses had already been dealing with cancellations through to February and were having to reassure travel agents about the timeline for road repairs and the fact that tourism attractions in Franz Josef, Fox Glacier and the rest of the West Coast were still operating.
Ironically, accom operators in Australia are battling similar misconceptions as towns which recently escaped decimation by bushfire struggle to prevent holidaymakers cancelling bookings.
Scenic Group managing director Brendan Taylor told Stuff it was unhelpful the mayor had overestimated how long it would take to reopen the roads, as it would put tourists off visiting the area.
Taylor says more needs to be done to improve roads and bridges to help protect the region’s vital tourism market – an argument refuted by NZTA systems manager Pete Connors, who argues no amount of funding would have prevented landslips under the circumstances.