We are going to see towns die from this economic disaster we are in.
For three decades tourism has been the great tidal surge that has made many otherwise spiralling towns stablise, and in some cases expand.
Since international travel on any scale will not come back for years as Covid-19 rolls wave after wave of corporeal and economic death through the world, what happens to those towns that owed their life to international tourism is: there’s no future for them.
We have seen the effects on the size and strength of towns from the economic changes of the 1990s in Richard Le Heron and Eric Pawson’s “Changing Places: New Zealand in the Nineties”. (Longman Paul 1996). There the lowered futures of such towns as Kaikoke and Balclutha are discussed.
Further back in time, we have had boom-bust economies that have left dead or dying ghost towns in Hokitika, Greymouth, and Dennison (coal and gold – and check The Luminaries for the detail of this), mid and south Taranaki’s Stratford, Hawera and Whanganui (dairy and meatworks restructuring), all the dead ports in the furthest flung places of Gisborne’s coast, tiny settlements up northland’s west coast that died after Kauri and Kauri gum and flax were stripped out and dairy continued to centralise (Dargaville all the way to Ahipara), and even those deeply emplaced in the alternative imagination like Kawhia and Port Waikato.
There’s now whole categories of them.
More recently settlements up and down State Highway 1 above Taupo are now at real threat as expressways detour around settlements like Huntly, Tokoroa, Ngaruawahia, Mercer, and Gordonton.
We’ve seen some in our history resist decline in style, like Patea.
But soon, those centres that had revived through tourism will find they just can’t hold their people.
The central Otago survivors had built new lives like Middlemarch (cycling and train excursions), and cycling through Ophir, Ranfurly, Lauder, Naseby, and Omakau will see the reasons for their previously successful businesses evaporate. The first to go are the young people, then the families follow. Then the schools shut. Then you’re done.
Also now at risk is the Mackenzie Country towns that follow the Alps to Ocean tour and the Asian bus tour packages – Mt Cook’s Hermitage is closed, and business is pretty much dead from Tekapo, Twizel, Pukaki, Omarama, Benmore and Duntroon, and it certainly won’t help the long term stagnation of Oamaru and Timaru.
Now, towns as big as Queenstown, Wanaka and Cromwell have built their booms mostly on the back of Queenstown International Airport, and the outlook for passengers in the medium term is just miserable.
Mayor Boult was one of the first to really open up and analyse the real damage the whole of that local authority faces.
Thankfully QLDC remains supported by internal capital flows and retirees into their villages and winter homes from Christchurch, Invercargill, Dunedin, and Auckland, so they won’t evaporate like many others have.
Some have built-in momentum like Auckland – but as a whole we’re a small, recently established, far-flung, capital-poor, vulnerable place, so we’re effectively a small town of the world.
This is one of the only governments I can recall that has seen this pattern and done something at a scale likely to make a difference – in the NZFirst policy of the Provincial Growth Fund. Their lists of achievements for small local communities is deeply impressive.
Nor need I list the astonishing success stories of the last two decades that have little to do with tourism, such as Blenheim, Nelson, Richmond at the top of the south (horticulture and viticulture); Pokeno, the whole of the Coromandel, and northland south of Whangarei (expanded Auckland commuter and holiday radius), and others.
And of course many other centres will guts it out, and prepare well to reinvent and thrive.
It may still well be that we don’t know how lucky we are.
But each boom in our history has come with a deep bust.
The 1870s after the gold and after the wars.
1930s global depression.
Late 1980s to early 1990s stock market and property collapse, and structural adjustment.
Now here we are. It’s the Covid-19 Collapse.
The skeletons of those boom-bust enclaves are around us in dead and dying towns.
Prepare to see more die.