Waikato tourism launching into new territory

Visitors on e-bikes cut a path from Garden Place, motors kicking into gear with the crank of a pedal...

They make their way down to the Waikato River, where kilometres of cycleway await. Ngāruawāhia sits to the north, Hamilton Gardens to the south.

Dan Tairaki, fledgling franchise-owner of Electrify.NZ in Hamilton is taking advantage of the region's cycle infrastructure. There is plenty to see on the splendid Te Awa River Ride in the city - Victoria on the River; the old Kirikiriroa Pā site; the new Perry Bridge at Horotiu.

On one guided tour, he took a Korean family in town for just a day to the recently opened Perry Bridge. It's 4km each way - an easy and pleasant 90-minute excursion.

The customer feedback was good, Tairaki says: "It's the perfect package." 

In a home office in Hamilton West, Waikato River Explorer skipper Darren Mills excitedly talks about the year ahead and the two new boats he's set to welcome to his fleet.

"Te Awa Lakes came to us and said: 'We want to make a ferry service part of the package and build a pontoon at Horotiu. What are your thoughts about putting a ferry service on for the city?"

"We sat down as a group of directors and said, bloody brilliant. That's what we need. That's the catalyst so we can start doing it."

Hamilton - a black hole for tourism, according to perception - is a myth, says Hamilton & Waikato Tourism chief executive Jason Dawson. He says little else about it.

"It's a myth," Dawson says. "We're emerging as a tourism destination."

There are two reasons. Expensive supercity accommodation and its famed gridlock along with Hamilton's accessibility to Auckland International Airport makes our city a logical choice.

But there is also the repeat business.

"International visitors have done Auckland. They've been to Rotorua and Queenstown. So they are back for their third or fourth visit and they want to do something a bit different," Dawson says.

"We're actually the gateway to the central North Island. That's Hamilton's role."
Concept drawings for Perry's Te Awa Lakes project at Horotiu.
Waikato ranks third behind Auckland and Wellington in the rich conference market and is the fifth-largest tourist centre in the country with 5 per cent of the market share - behind Auckland (29%), Christchurch (8%), Queenstown (8%) and Wellington (8%).

The figures shouldn't be sneezed at. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment shows our numbers are on the rise.

Tourism expenditure to the year in December 2017 increased to $2.5 billion - up 6 per cent compared with the previous year. And the vast majority of that came from domestic visitors, who spent $1.9 billion. International visitors spent $643 million.

"People might not think we have a lot of attractions here," Dawson says, "but what we do have is some really good accommodation, high-class hospitality in restaurants and cafes and good retail shopping. And actually, that's what visitors want."

It's starting to show. The CBD is maturing. Riverbank Lane and Victoria on the River are some of the latest city features, joining SkyCity Hamilton's 2002 philosophy of turning the city's face around to the river.

Lale Ieremia, development manager of Perry Group's Te Awa Lakes project, agrees there is a lack of tourism product and he is doing something about it.

At the north of the city, Te Awa Lakes project looms as a much-needed launching pad for the industry - a billion-dollar water adventure park and residential and commercial development.

"Our biggest issue in Hamilton is that we can't hold people that extra night," Ieremia says.

"They all complain about the same thing: Not enough beds that are the right quality in the right location, not enough attraction to actually hold people here, either domestic or international."

Sitting in the Brian Perry boardroom at company headquarters in Hamilton with chief executive Richard Coventry, Ieremia tells a story of creating a unique Waikato experience, of linking existing operators to the city, of building infrastructure for new operators to climb on board and creating a 500m-long gateway into the city replete with carved pou and plants.

"That's the view we could have and that's why we think the location is so important," Ieremia says. "It's currently zoned to have tin sheds and that's what we don't want. When that's your opportunity to drive into the city, the first thing you don't want is to look at tin sheds. That's what we think." 

The Perry vision has percolated in the bowels of the organisation for more than a decade, hitting both its commercial and community aspirations. A water-themed park with cable skiing, bike park and dining experience; free bus service to The Base shopping centre down the road; a pontoon wharf for water taxis; access to the Te Awa River Ride - the list goes on.

Ideas are being discussed with Hobbiton and Waitomo Caves operators about building a themed hotel in the city and busing customers out and back.

Essentially, it's a staging post for the wider region. Keep visitors in Hamilton for two or three nights and let them explore.

"We're a hub with multiple sets of spokes for both a residential development perspective, but also a regional tourism perspective.

"We reckon we've got a unique opportunity and an opportunity to provide and be a growth catalyst to both the tourism side and the capital-development side."

"It's a hub-and-spoke approach," Coventry says. "The spoke is already there, but the glue is not there to link it all up. It opens up massive opportunities for the region."

Mills, a former skipper of the Waipa Delta, launched the Waikato River Explorer six years ago and takes between 10,000 and 12,000 passengers per year. It's a number that surprises locals.

" 'Really?' they say. 'There is actually a tourism business in Hamilton that is doing all right?'

"That's the bizarre thing," Mills says. "People just don't realise anything good could happen in their city, which is a real shame."

It's not all pie in the sky, either. An American couple shared their thinking with him.

"A couple from Texas booked their holiday six months ago - all done online. They planned their holiday meticulously and when they were looking at where to stay, they looked at deals in Auckland and said: We want to go down country anyway, so why don't we base ourselves in Hamilton? We can go to Hamilton, go to Auckland, we can go to Tauranga, we can go to Raglan, Taupō and Rotorua and then fly out of Hamilton down to Queenstown. 

"There are so many stories like that," Mills says.

Business is going well. This year, the jetty below the Hamilton Gardens will be upgraded and there are plans for a jetty below the Waikato Museum, too.

"We want to run two boats on the river, so our plan this year is to run a 40-seater water taxi, which we are hoping - if I can get some support from several key organisations - we are hoping to run at Fieldays this year. That will coincide to the new infrastructure being built.

"The river has huge potential and we decided six years ago to do something and put our money where our mouths were and we've proven there is sustainable tourism business on the river and there is room for development."

E-bikers Dan Tairaki and wife Dynell Tairaki opened a pop-up shop in Hamilton's Garden Place in December and have outgrown it already, with about 40 walk-up customers each day on the back of zero marketing.

They are in the middle of fitting out a new shop at the corner of Garden Place and Victoria Street with Electrify.NZ founder Michael Tritt.

"I wanted to do something family friendly, but I saw the opportunity with the Te Awa River Ride and Ngāruawāhia at the start of it," Dan says. "We started a tourism group in Ngāruawāhia with some really good people who want to see Ngāruawāhia benefit from tourism and facilitate tourism and market the town as a destination.

"With the electric bikes, we are pretty much the first tourism operator in Ngāruawāhia, so that's positive for the town and we want to build on that."

The shop's grand opening is on February 17. The location is ideal.

SkyCity Hamilton is across the road, restaurants and cafes are all around and the Novotel Hamilton Tainui, which is adding 40 extra rooms, and the Sudima Hamilton are short walks away.

"For tourism, we are building and learning and we're setting up shop to really get ready for the next big season next summer. We want to hit it hard and rent out a lot of bikes." 

From Stuff.co.nz