When paradise in New Zealand becomes a ghost town

Living in a tourist town without the tourists is a strangely beautiful experience

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For the first time in the nearly five years I’ve lived in Wanaka, a bustling, up and coming mountain town, the streets are quiet. The roads are empty, and the doors are shut. The lights are off, and no one is around. Occasionally, I see the rare pedestrian walking through the desolate streets, and their mere existence produces an involuntary reaction of suspicion and distrust.

Where could they possibly be going? Don’t they know everything is closed? We’ve been in lockdown in New Zealand for seven weeks. The impact of Coronavirus on Wanaka was fast and immediate.

In the past ten years, a town that was once a well-kept secret only known to those who had stumbled upon it has become an international destination, the chill, equally beautiful, little brother to the overwhelming and chaotic Queenstown next door. Just last month, real estate prices were reaching record highs (like millions high). 

Now, people are left wondering if they’ll be able to pay their mortgage and even keep their home.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

While it’s no secret that a town like Wanaka desperately needs tourists to keep running, there’s something oddly satisfying about a quiet town, a rare glimpse into the past.

Our future in New Zealand is unknown, but the impact of Coronavirus on Wanaka is already apparent. It’s impossible to know what the future of travel will be and the fate of our beloved mountain town. Still, with so much out of our control right now, the only thing we can do is to enjoy the present and fully indulge in taking advantage of our quiet paradise.

Here is what life is like in Wanaka during Coronavirus 2020.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

1. Kiwis are on the trails

Ok, let me preface this; this section isn’t suggesting that Kiwis were never on the tracks, to begin with. No. Kiwis around here are pretty good about getting out and enjoying mother natch whenever the sun is shining. But with hoards of tourists crowding popular trails (cough cough Roy’s Peak), the locals have had to get inventive to find their own quiet places.

Until just recently, all domestic travel was restricted for two months, and only short day walks from home were allowed.

This meant kiwis (perhaps against their will) were confined to their local trails. Roy’s Peak, Rocky Mountain, Isthmus Peak. Hikes in Wanaka that are usually shoulder to shoulder on the peaks and even queues were left mostly empty with no one on the trail but the locals.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

Last weekend, the first weekend we were allowed to go on a hike, we drove to the trailhead of Rocky Mountain and were met with a jam-packed car park. The walk was busy, even for Rocky Mountain standards, but instead of flocks of foreign tourists, the trail was filled with little kids being carried on their dad’s shoulders, mother and daughter duos, essential workers enjoying their day off.

The top of the mountain was so busy we couldn’t even sit to enjoy the view while maintaining social distancing. There have been no retail shops open, no cafes, no playgrounds, and as a result, Kiwi families are taking to mother nature’s natural playground.

After years of fast growth, it was nice to see the locals claim their spots again.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

2. People are supporting local

The impact of Coronavirus on Wanaka cannot be understated. Businesses in Wanaka right now are struggling, especially those that depend on the tourist dollar like cafes and bars. As we start to exit our natural shoulder season and jump into winter, I can’t help but think that many of our beloved restaurants and bars won’t make it through the next six months + of low tourism numbers.

I’m not alone. Local Wanaka residents throughout the town are showing up to fill the void that is being left by international tourists. As soon as we were allowed to get takeaways, our local spots found themselves inundated with orders from their regular customers and occasional visitors, showing up to keep them alive.

While it looks like our local mountain, Cardrona, will be able to open this season, international travel still looks dire for the foreseeable future. Without international tourists, kiwis are preparing to do what they can to help out.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

3. Kiwis are looking forward to exploring their own country

International travel is off the cards for the foreseeable future. New Zealand’s borders are closed to anyone except citizens and permanent residents. Our national airline carrier Air New Zealand has had to cut its operations by 90%. That’s staggering. Even as restrictions ease, social distancing is still in place, which means their planes are flying at 50% capacity. 

Not only are we not getting international visitors, but kiwis are not going to be able to take their winter get-away holidays overseas either. Goodbye Fiji! For the next wee while, we’re all stuck here on this big beautiful island.

The good news? We’re still going to want to travel. We’re still going to want to take that holiday. The only difference is that we’ll be taking that holiday here in our backyard. Good thing, our backyard is astoundingly beautiful!

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

I remember when I arrived in New Zealand how surprised I was that so many North Islanders had never been to the South Island. How could they never even travel to through their own country!?

But I guess the same could be said about me. As an American, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, or Niagra Falls, or Yellowstone or Yosemite. Hell, I’ve only been to a handful of states myself. The need to explore other countries before your own is one that is common no matter where you are.

Now that we’re effectively stuck here together, what better time to explore New Zealand. Kiwis are making plans to visit their own country, filling the vacuum the international visitors left behind.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

4. Locals are changing their mind about tourists

Look, at the end of the day, Wanaka is a lot like any other tourist town in the world. We are so reliant on the foreign dollar. But with that reliance comes a sense of angst and pushback on visitors. Those who have moved to Wanaka, myself included, tend to find it’s a hard place to break into socially. Mostly it is set at least if you’re looking to make friends outside of the travel bubble.

After living here for five years, I can see why.

We have such a high turnover of seasonal residents that it gets tiring to deal with the effects of tourism. Your favorite trails are crowded. The streets are busy. There are far too many tourist car crashes. You find you don’t want to invest much emotional energy into foreigners because you assume they’ll be gone in a few months just like the others. I’m not saying it’s right, but I can understand it.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

Now that COVID has decimated international travel to New Zealand, we are changing our tune. The impact of Coronavirus on Wanaka and Queenstown was fast and furious,

Even the Queenstown Mayor said that within a few weeks, we went from one of the wealthiest regions in New Zealand to one of the poorest. Unemployment in our region could reach 30%. That’s a staggering number to come to terms with. People will be forced to leave the area because of a lack of jobs. Growth will be put on the back burner, with our main focus being mere survival.

It sounds terrible, but there is a silver lining in all of this. For the first time in nearly a decade, New Zealand residents are changing their minds about international visitors. Sure, have your home overrun by tourists can get frustrating. But for a town like Wanaka, it’s essential to our survival.

New Zealand has a not so pleasant relationship with casual racism to international visitors, especially towards Asian tourists. Still, once Coronavirus canceled Chinese New Year, Kiwis were quick to realize that although Chinese tourists may have different customs and culture to us, they were still an integral part of our community and survival.

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

5. Our sense of community is stronger than ever

We all have come to or stayed in this region because of the beauty it holds. Even now, we were all (and still are!) captivated by the impossibly tall peaks, crystal clear rivers, overwhelmingly beautiful bird song. The universe now gives us a gentle reminder that we alone are not entitled to this beauty that it’s here to share with the world (albeit, it should be shared responsibly and with the appropriate infrastructure), and that is a beautiful realization.

We are a country that has handled the Coronavirus well, but with it comes a period of enduring economic pain. Was it worth it? Did we make the right call in shutting down our country? In my opinion, yes, you can’t put a price on human life. Will we pick up the pieces and move on?

Of course, we will. New Zealand is known for its “get it done” attitude. This is a nation that has been built on self-reliance born out of sheer necessity. We will call our friends, check in on our neighbors, buy a coffee from the local cafe, find Kiwi alternatives to international goods.

As we move forward into our unknown future, we will continue to lift each other and show up for those businesses that need it, and when the time is right, we’ll open our borders again and be grateful to share our little corner of paradise.

Can you believe the impact of Coronavirus on Wanaka? How is it wherever you are in the world? Spill!

impact of coronavirus on Wanaka

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14 Comments on “When paradise in New Zealand becomes a ghost town

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  1. I had a visit to New Zealand 1 year ago and I admired the natural beauty of the place and the uniqueness of the place ,
    I would appreciate you for this wonderful blog
    Thanks and Regards ,
    Gurleen kaur

  2. I had the opportunity to visit my son in Auckland for the first time during Dec 2019 & Jan 2020. We went on a two week road trip round south island and when we stayed over in Wanaka I fell in love with this wonderful place. I really envy you and hope to also relocate from South Africa in the not too distant future. Enjoy everything that nature offers you.

  3. As much as I enjoyed your story, there is one subject that stood out to me- the “not so pleasant relationship with casual racism to international visitors, especially towards Asian tourists”.

    I did an internship with one of the universities in New Zealand for the summer a few years ago and decided to travel to the South Island for a few weeks afterwards. I loved everything about New Zealand until I had the most disheartening and bizarre interactions with the locals. I had gone into a hostel with my tour bus near Lake Tekapo and was trying to figure out the room situation with my friends that I made on the tour. I was about to walk up to the hostess to ask for a room and once she saw me walking up to her, she blurted out “You took too long, I’m helping them first”. It was a strange situation and I thought she was just having a bad day. But the next day, I went to a grocery store and another weird situation occurred. My friend bought items before me with her card, no problem and no questions asked. I was next and gave the cashier my card. She told me to sign the receipt. As usual, I did sign as I was used to doing this since I had been living in the country for a couple of months. She looked at the signature and blatantly said “This doesn’t even look like it matches you signature, where’s your ID”. As I gave it too her and she verified my info, she huffed and shoved the ID and card back to me. I just could not believe the rudeness and knew something was off. It wasn’t until we spent more time in the area where I did notice alot of Asian tourist. It immediately came together that the horrible interactions I had likely stemmed from racism. I tried to explain what had happened with my friends on the bus, but they didn’t see what I saw, didn’t experience what I did, and hadn’t felt the way that I felt as I was the only Asian American on our bus. The fact that these individuals felt the need to be demeaning to a complete stranger who had done nothing to them and to express so much anger toward a certain ethnicity is just so nauseating and disheartening for a country that I had come to love and embrace during my time there. When I got back to the North Island, I had explained what happened to my friends, but again, they weren’t aware of racism in the South Island. Reading what you had written, I’m just glad someone out there has acknowledged that it exist and may be the ugliest part of the most beautiful country. I don’t know why I felt the need to share my story especially since this was a few years ago and things or attitudes may have changed after Christchurch. I think what you had said just resonated with me and brought back those hurtful memories of what was mostly an amazing trip otherwise. If those individuals I came across had been tourist in another part of the world, I doubt that they would want to be treated the way they had treated me. I can’t even imagine how they may have been treating other Asians throughout the years, especially those with a language barrier, who may have been unable to speak about their mistreatment afterwards. Yes, my experiences could be seen as mild situations or, as described earlier as “casual” racism, but no matter how it is described, it stems from a place of hate. It should not be overlooked, dismissed, or even sugar coated as “casual” and “not so pleasant”. It is racism, it is ugly, it is horrific, it is hatred. And we have already see what hate has led to in Christchurch. I’m hoping with everything that is happening in the world, there would be a better understanding of other cultures and a better sense of compassion toward those who are different from us and other humans in general. The world will not go back to normal, but hopefully we will take the opportunity to make the world better.

    1. I am so so sorry you had to deal with that attitude and that it sticks in your memory from an otherwise amazing trip.
      It is just so shit. obviously I can’t justify their behavior and I wasn’t there, but I *very shamefully* went through a period where I really hated “Asian” tourists here and perhaps my growth from that will make you hopeful that other people can change too. When I moved to the South Island 7 years ago, it was pretty much just small town all white farmers. There’s not a lot of diversity down here. You know everywhere, it was insular. People gave me shit for being foreign, and I hated it. I did everything I could to integrate myself. Then after a couple of years tourism just exploded, and the main demographic was mainland China, mostly big tour buses. It was a massive culture shock for small-town kiwis, especially as the values are clearly super different, from how to deal with rubbish, to how you speak to people, to go to the bathroom on the side of the road, even the noise. It was shocking for a lot of locals who never asked for that amount of growth. Resentment grew so much. Tekapo is very much the hub of it. Before Covid, it was actually insane the number of people who would converge on it, and longtime locals rebelled. There has been tourist vs locals clashes for years now, and to be honest the growth was totally unsustainable. I did too. It felt like our precious land was being disrespected. You walked into a firestorm, and that sucks and I’m so sorry. I spent a long time working on myself and my attitude around and realizing how it’s not race it’s growth and everyone deserves respect, confronting my long-held racism. There’s so much more I’m going to say but I hope that background helps a bit. I definitely am not saying it as any way justifiable what happened to you because it isn’t, but perhaps it’s a bit illuminating. I really look forward to sharing more about racism here in NZ and how we can all improve and do better, and I hope you can come back one day with fresh eyes and see us in a new way – once we’ve earned it haha

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