Eggs, baskets and one positive from Covid-19

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It seems so obvious looking back. Queenstown had too many tourism eggs in our economic basket.

We knew disruptions to tourism can happen, but we’d navigated these before – SARS and the Global Financial Crisis put a short term dent in tourism growth but we bounced back quickly.

Growth pressures caused stress on infrastructure, people and our environment but the problems we faced were preferable to some other New Zealand communities grappling with high unemployment, and intergenerational poverty.

We weren’t blind to the need to spread our economic risk, but just like that nagging intention to update our will or refresh our earthquake emergency kit, it’s easy to put these things off when you are busy being busy.

We had made a start. ‘The Cube’ in Wanaka supported start-ups, Study Queenstown helped grow the number of international students, and Film Otago Southland promoted the region. A strategy was created and in 2017 and I was lucky enough to be appointed the first economic development manager for the district. Between then and 2020 we helped create Startup Queenstown Lakes, coordinate workforce initiatives, and build a local film office.

The bulk of the funding and effort remained focused on promoting the district to visitors, dealing with the infrastructure challenges of a growing number of locals and visitors, and responding to a community increasingly disgruntled that their little patch of paradise was getting (too) busy. With 6 out of 10 workers being employed in tourism and almost everyone affected in some way by this dominant industry, this focus seemed inevitable.

And then came Covid-19. It may not have been as devastating as predicted (8000 jobs lost) but for every person who has lost their job or business income, it has been incredibly traumatic. And it’s not over yet.

Our conversations have become dominated by talk of bubbles, wage subsidies, vaccinations, lockdowns – and diversification. Why hadn’t we done more to diversify? What ideas could solve this and what would it take to turn us into Silicon Valley? People floated ideas to the Mayor, and via the media. A few of these are slowly coming to fruition, but most sit in a digital suggestion box, waiting for someone to drive them forward. Ideas are valuable, but people willing to make them happen are priceless.

Slowly, good people have been putting their hand up. Some of their businesses and projects were in the wind prior to Covid-19 but the crisis has made them more committed to making them real. While not all will come to fruition there are amazing opportunities being worked on including tech training, software that helps hospitality businesses, film studios, start-up investment, off-the-grid energy solutions, and strategies to grow tech across the region.

Diversification is never easy, or fast. Building new industries and businesses takes time and we will need a portfolio of initiatives – including;

  • Fostering start-ups and existing export businesses
  • Growing industry ‘smart specialisations’ (e.g. software for the tourism industry)
  • Attracting individuals committed to growing a team in the district
  • Ensuring the ‘ecosystem’ here makes it easy to create new opportunities (e.g. access to investors and talent)

While it is a daunting challenge, we have some unique advantages. The people behind some of the projects have incredible international business experience and contacts, and there are already great tech businesses in the district. We are also a place that talent wants to live. As the work opportunities grow, workers and entrepreneurs will gain more and more confidence that they can build a future here.

The government is realising the role our district can play in growing ‘weightless’ exports for the nation. They are recognising that Queenstown Lakes is home to entrepreneurs that not only run great tourism businesses, but do business around the world in other industries.

Covid-19 has been devastating for tourism, but it remains our largest industry. We need it to rebuild and to simultaneously invest in economic ‘insurance’ through diversification. With the commitment of our local community, entrepreneurs, organisations including the QLDC economic development team and Startup Queenstown Lakes, and government to grow new industries, we can spread our economic eggs into more baskets.

There is no denying the pain that Covid-19 has caused our district. When we look back in 10 years at this time those scars will remain, but we may also recognise it as the moment when diversification went from something we wanted to happen in the background, to something we embraced as a community.

(credit Peter Harris)

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