Thursday, 23 July 2020

Living free

Holidays over the winter school break were glorious.

We took the ferry across to the South Island to catch up with friends, find some snow, and see what was all going on on the Mainland.

I'm giving way more of a travelogue here than I ever normally would, because of the anecdata on what restaurants, tourist spots, and hospitality venues were like. The loss of all international tourists can matter. 

The Monday afternoon ride across was wonderful. Calm all the way through with smooth sailing. We booked our sailing a month in advance. The Bluebridge was already booked out for the ride South, so we took the Interislander - and the Bluebridge on the way back North. 


We made it through to Kaikoura that evening. After dropping our bags, we went out in search of food. Kaikoura has always been a bit of a tourist town, and I wanted to see how busy things were. A lot of places seemed closed - perhaps because we were late at night, perhaps for other reasons. But we stopped at Strawberry Tree pub. We got the last table, and they'd already run out of the lamb shanks and steak - they'd underestimated demand over school holidays. It sounded like things had been slow and they'd not reckoned on its picking up quite this much. I hope it keeps up. The fish and chips were excellent.

We stopped to see the seals the next morning before heading out to the snow. The seals were happy as always. The walking trails were busy, and while the parking lot at trailhead was empty when we arrived, it was full when we left.




From there, off to Castle Hill Village for the night to meet up with friends, before a Wednesday and Thursday of skiing at Porters.

We stopped in Cheviot for lunch. Cheviot was sad. It was stranded by the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, north of the detour for those heading up to Kaikoura and points north, and not a destination unto itself. Only one cafe seemed left, everything else was closed. I don't know whether they'd all gone before Covid, or whether Covid put the final boot in.

The pies were good at the Cheviot Tea Rooms, and it seemed busy enough for lunch hour, but it was all that was left. 

Further south, Pegasus Bay's cellar door and restaurant were closed - open only on the weekends now. Torlesse's cellar door was open - their port is always great value. But we were the only ones there.

Porters had what seemed a reasonable turnout for a very early part of the season. Not all the runs were yet open - more snow was needed. And parts of the ones that were open were a bit icy. But it was still great. I missed the snow. 






We went back to Christchurch Thursday night to see what's all been happening in our old home town. We were a bit late heading out for dinner and got the last table at Spice Paragon. Dinner was excellent, and I doubt we'd have been able to get a walk-in table absent Covid. But it was great to see that the place was full. 

Friday we explored downtown. Much of it was unrecognisable because of the building that's happened since I left in 2014. Tourist places in town were busy. The Canterbury Museum was busy with a couple of new exhibitions; the Arts Centre was busy as well, but the couple of food carts were lonely. 

The new Riverside Market seemed spectacularly successful. It was absolutely teeming early Friday afternoon. But elsewhere there were a lot of For Lease signs and quiet shops.


The University Staff Club was busy and full on Friday night, but not as busy as it typically was when I was on faculty there and the crowds would flow out into the gardens and dozens of faculty kids would run around near the stream. Friends wondered when and whether the government would ever allow international students to return under managed isolation, and spoke darkly about the consequences of its not being sorted. It will be very very bad. And other developments also had me very glad to be able to put the place under a Somebody Else's Problem field. The kinds of things Matt Taibbi warns about in his newsletter are creeping in. 

Alpine Ice was chocka that evening - as busy as I've ever seen it. Also, the standard of skating there has improved considerably. I'm not great at skating, for a Canadian, but that would typically have a bad Canadian in the top 5% at Alpine. This time, only the top quarter. That's good news. 



Saturday was more hanging out with friends, exploring town, and dinner at Himalayas. They were quiet enough when we arrived, but a party of a bit more than a dozen 19 year olds (or thereabouts), each charged with a bottle of wine on entry (and disposing loudly of the contents later in the night), put an end to the quiet rather quickly. 

I'm glad those kinds of festivities are here possible again, but I'd prefer to view them from a somewhat greater distance. 

Sunday we headed south again to Oamaru, stopping (as everyone always should) in Waimate to see the wallabies and in hope that Gwen were still there. 

When I coordinated the Erskine programme at Canterbury for visiting scholars arriving into the Economics Department, I put together a bit of a tiki tour guide for them for a South Island driving tour. I'd tell them to start by driving to Waimate to feed the wallabies and have a chat with Gwen. Gwen is a laugh-riot. If you haven't gone there, just do it. The wallabies are also very cute. They'll hold your hand while you feed them. 

The wallaby park was as busy as I've ever seen it, but we had always avoided doing anything touristy during school holidays when I was based in Christchurch. 



Lunch in Waimate at the Waimate Kitchen & Bar was superb. The place was not as busy as I'd have hoped for a Sunday lunch crowd. We weren't the only ones there, but well over half the tables were empty. And the rest of the main drag was very very quiet. 

Then, south to Oamaru in time to see the Little Blue Penguins come ashore for the night. Another of those 'if you haven't done it yet, what the heck is wrong with you' spots. At sunset, the little blues start coming ashore in rafts, shake themselves off, come up the rocks, and scurry out to their nesting boxes. They sing to their mates on their return. It's lovely. 

It had been a while since we'd been there - they now have a luxury box closer to the action, and not much more expensive than the standard seats. That slightly more expensive seating was near full; the standard seating was nearly empty. They still provide all the narration in both English and Mandarin, and there were some visitors there who did seem to appreciate the bilingual explanations.

We had dinner at the AirBnB that night rather than heading out, but the tourist-facing places in Oamaru on Monday were grim. Steampunk HQ was busy, and excellent, but the Victorian district was deathly. Perhaps some shops are only open on weekends now, but certainly would have been open more regularly during school holidays pre-Covid. We bought a few things at one of the shops, including a nifty 'vaping jacket' for me, and it seemed like the owner had not made any substantial sales in rather some time. 

The parts of town that cater to locals and to the agricultural community seemed busy. PaperPlus was full of people buying books and scratchies. The farm supply shops looked busy. 

But we were the only ones having lunch at India Garden that day.

Then, on to Tekapo - with a stop along the way at the Vanished World Centre for Fossils in Duntroon where the kids chipped tiny fossils out of hunks of limestone - one other family stopped in while we were there. I don't know whether they're typically busier than that on a Monday afternoon during school holidays or not. 

We arrived in Tekapo late in the afternoon. The salmon farms on the way through the lakes had all already closed for the day when we drove by - their hours were shorter than expected for school holidays. 

And we headed out to Tekapo Springs in the morning. 

If there are prettier skating rinks anywhere in the world, I've never heard of them. You can look out over the mountains while skating. 

Tekapo Springs was heaving with people. We arrived at 10, when they open, but they'd clearly had people queuing for rather some time before - it wasn't until maybe 10.30 that we'd gotten through. We managed to get a 2.30 booking for the snow tube run. I skated with the kids; Susan mostly hung out in the hot pools. It was busy the whole time we were there. 


That night, we were completely unable to get any table at any restaurant in town. Everywhere that was open was fully booked. We had wanted to go to the Dark Sky Diner, but it had closed at the start of Covid and has not yet re-opened. Every other restaurant was completely full, so Four-Square provided dinner. 

Wednesday we drove up to Roundhill for more skiing. I'd never been there before. It was absolutely perfect. The ski field was busy, but not crazily so. The snow was good. The granddaddy of all rope tows up to the expert slopes was not yet open because there wasn't enough snow on that slope yet, but I wouldn't have had the skill to have tried it anyway. 

And the views from the top of the normal runs were passable anyway. 





The place could have handled a few more people than were there, but a lot more would have started getting into congestion issues at the tow bar. I hope that their numbers hold up with school break having finished - the place is spectacular. Just wonderful. 

Thursday we started heading for home. The Friday afternoon ferry meant a Thursday drive up to Blenheim, via the Inland Scenic Route and Geraldine and Oxford. 

Geraldine was very quiet. We had the cheese shop to ourselves - that district would normally have been full of busloads of tourists. Barkers of Geraldine had scaled up considerably since we were last there, with facilities fit for those busloads. It was busy enough with locals, though I wonder whether that will last beyond school holidays. 

We stopped in Oxford for lunch. Oxford is a great little town about a half-hour out of Christchurch. It's always been a bit touristy, with a great weekend market we'd occasionally get out to. We arrived in Oxford at 1 PM on a Thursday and figured we'd try the new and interesting-looking diner. And it had no room at all - bookings only. At 1 PM on a Thursday, in a small town a half-hour out of Christchurch. 

The road back up through Kaikoura is still under construction from the 2016 earthquakes. They're managing it by letting traffic flow one way for 20 minutes, the other way for 20 minutes, and working for 20 minutes. But they are managing it superbly. A smiling worker comes by to explain the works to each car, when traffic might start moving again, and to point out the portaloos near the front of the queue. He didn't, but could have, pointed out the seals that made for excellent companions down the roadside cliff at the rocky beach.




Blenheim seemed busy enough. We got the very last table at Gramado's, next to the motel where we stayed the night. 

And we caught the ferry Friday afternoon after spending a bit of time at the Picton aquarium, where we got to pat a tuatara. It too was as busy as we've generally seen it on prior trips - but perhaps lighter than you might have thought for school holidays. 

Overall, the tourist-facing places that cater to international tourists in particular looked to be in rough shape - Oamaru's Victorian district in particular. But those catering to locals were throbbing. That will ease back as school holidays are over, and may erode further with the end of the wage subsidy scheme looming. 

Continuing to prop up tourist ventures catering to international tourists makes little sense if the government isn't able to set arrangements at the border to safely facilitate more people coming through. The link goes through to my piece this week at Newsroom that previews some of the things I talk about in the report we're releasing overnight.

Normal arrangements cannot be resumed; any safe opening requires at least managed isolation of incoming internationals, and that will prevent the kinds of tourism we've previously had from coming back. But there is a lot that could be done, safely. 

Tourists would never self-isolate for two weeks. But half of the US workforce shifted to remote work during their lockdown, and if even tiny proportions of them were able and willing to shift their remote work to New Zealand, bringing their jobs with them, it would bring life back to a lot of places. There would still be a big reduction in visits to the really tourist-facing places. Fewer visitors each spending a lot longer here will visit each of the sites once or twice; the bus loads of tourists that came through spending a couple weeks here visited each of the sites once. Even if the total number of international-nights spent here were the same, the traffic at those facilities would be well down. But the cafes and bars would be doing rather well - and not just during school holidays. 

I wonder how many US tech workers would be happy to flip from the nightmares there to hang out for a year in Oamaru, or in Napier, or in Cheviot, or anywhere else here where the internet is speedy enough.

As of 15 July, Our World in Data had New Zealand's Covid restrictions as being among the least restrictive in the world. Tighter restrictions earlier mean we're incredibly free now. We've always been the Outside of the Asylum, it's more true now than ever. 

It's sad. In America, and a lot of Australia, they rail against facemasks as being intolerable restrictions on freedom. We had a lockdown, and we can live more freely than folks can anywhere else. We have to keep the borders safe. But surely there are ways of letting a few more come in, at their own expense, to enjoy the serenity. 

I wish that I had been able to convince more of my friends, before all of this, to join us here. 





















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