News In Brief

Is the closure of visitor centres short-sighted?

This week Central Otago District Council announced the closure of i-SITE visitors centres across the district: the decision baffles tourism workers as restrictions are just beginning to lift and New Zealanders are starting to travel again.

The move will affect four sites and see eight permanent employees lose their job in an attempt to reduce the burden on ratepayers.

The decision was explained as part of restructuring of the Council’s i-SITE service delivery which will include “permanently closing its i-SITE visitor centre in Alexandra, closing Council’s i-SITE in the Cromwell Mall and relocating Cromwell i-SITE services to be delivered by a private vendor, and rationalising service delivery in Ranfurly”.

The service provided in Roxburgh will continue under its current arrangements.

On the tough call, Council CEO Sanchia Jacobs said: “Decisions like this are never made lightly, but in the current environment, and as part of supporting our Council’s commitment to lower the rates burden in Central Otago, tough decisions have had to be made”.

“Our i-SITE staff are the friendly human face that greets visitors to Central Otago and helps locals connect to a range of services. At their core, they are the people that help others navigate our beautiful piece of paradise. When i-SITES closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown, many of the staff affected by this decision stepped up to help our civil defence function deliver welfare needs to the community – dealing with situations well outside their normal duties with absolute integrity and heart. Today’s decision has a very personal impact on these people that have so graciously served their community,” said Ms Jacobs.

In December 2019 Tourism Central Otago conducted a review of its i-SITE operations to ensure the service was fit for purpose and met the future needs of tourism in Central Otago. The review looked into the commercial viability of i-SITEs given their decreasing revenue generation over the last fives years, and as more and more people use online resources for gathering information and making bookings.

The commercial viability of those operations has taken a further hit as a result of COVID-19, with visitor numbers predicted to take five years to recover.

The i-SITES had all closed during lockdown, and it was already estimated that they were unlikely to reopen until October 2020. That is when the traditional demand for their services typically picks up, and was when domestic travel was predicted to be normalised.

Recognising the heavy rates burden the i-SITEs were imposing on Central Otago ratepayers, the Council directed staff to take the necessary steps to consider closure of i-SITES as a bid to lower the rates burden for Central Otago ratepayers.

The financial impact of the closures and rationalisation of services is a saving to rates of about $340,000 – decreasing district wide rates by approximately 1% in this move alone.

While i-SITE bookings generate revenue for business, more than 60% of the accommodation, activity and transport revenue from i-SITE bookings through the Alexandra and Cromwell i-SITEs goes to businesses outside of Central Otago.

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan said the bottom line was that in Central Otago i-SITEs were costing the ratepayer far more to run than the revenue they generate.

“With the significant decreases forecasted in revenue, the cost to ratepayers to continue the service would further increase. We had to take that seriously,” he said.  “The good news is that the services will still be offered to the community, albeit in a different way.”

Tourism Central Otago General Manager Dylan Rushbrook said it had been hard news to deliver to staff.

“The hardest part in all of this is knowing that these team members have done an outstanding job for us, many for a long period of time. But times have changed, and the i-SITE model was being seriously challenged prior to COVID-19. The events of the last few months and the ongoing closure of international borders simply means i-SITEs nationwide will be making some tough calls in the coming months.

“We are aware the services i-SITEs provide to our community is critical for many, and so in undertaking these measures we are committed to finding alternative vendors to continue supplying those essential services such as bus and event ticketing. We want to be very clear, essential i-SITE services will still be delivered in the community, it just won’t be solely delivered by the council.”

Image Credits: ©Pitamaha –

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