Ian and Cindy Fox show off one of Northland’s newest tourist attractions, the Chandelier Chamber at Waipū Caves Farm Park. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Just come on up, we’re open for business!
That’s the message to New Zealand from a Northland tourism sector grappling with storm-damaged roads and perceptions the region was laid to waste by Cyclone Gabrielle.
operators, including two new ventures which opened their doors in the midst of cyclone chaos, want the country to know they’re open and Northland’s bush and beaches are as inviting as ever.
Ian Fox, a former plant nursery owner and outdoor instructor, opened Waipū Caves Farm Park with his wife Cindy on February 25.
The venture, on a mostly bush-clad farm near Waipū, offers guided cave tours and will soon add bush walks, mountain biking, and camping for holidaymakers and school groups.
Fox had a simple message for the rest of New Zealand: “Just come! Sure, there’s a few little road closures, but Northland’s open. It’s a beautiful place where you can immerse yourself in all kinds of nature, like the beach, bush and caves.”
The couple opened the business in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle, when State Highway 1 over the Brynderwyns was still closed, on the morning after the Mangawhai deluge wiped out a bridge at Langs Beach and closed the main detour through Waipū for more than two weeks.
“Traffic flow was already screwed. That just screwed it even more.”
Fox said it was a tough time to start a business, especially after years of Covid restrictions, labour shortages and bureaucratic hoop-jumping.
However, the cave tours were in full swing and the campground, which was awaiting a final box-tick, was due to open in late April.
“People are loving it,” he said.
The 130ha property included a cave system similar to the public Waipū Caves, 2km away, but more pristine because it could be accessed only with a guide.
Fox said conservation was a cornerstone of the new venture.
“The more people immerse themselves in nature, the more people will love nature and the better nature will be protected,” he said.
Another new venture which has rolled out the welcome mat in recent weeks is Kā Uri in Awanui, north of Kaitaia.
The former Ancient Kauri Kingdom has undergone a major upgrade since it was bought by Far North iwi Ngāti Kuri in 2016.
It retains old attractions such as a giant kauri staircase and a workshop where visitors can watch craftspeople at work, but the iwi has added a cafe, exhibition space and business venue, as well as revamping the retail area.
The complex has a strong focus on te ao Māori (the Māori world) and te taiao (the natural environment), with Ngāti Kuri tourism manager Steffan Panoho saying it would be “a beacon and a source of pride” for the Far North.
One of the aims was to encourage travellers to slow down and learn more about the Far North’s stories instead of just racing to Cape Reinga.
To the rest of Aotearoa, Panoho said: “Come up and visit us, you’re more than welcome. We’re open and we have a lot to offer.”
Tania Burt, destination manager for Northland Inc, said the region’s tourism operators had been looking forward to a solid summer to make up for years of lost revenue caused by the Covid pandemic.
Instead, they got lacklustre weather capped off by Cyclone Gabrielle.
While Northland didn’t suffer the devastation of other regions, there was widespread disruption to power and phone networks, along with isolated flooding and damage.
Fast-changing road conditions made it tricky to keep up with which roads were open.
Another unfortunate effect was how long it took for perceptions to change.
“We haven’t been as disconnected as everyone thinks. Yes, there’s disruption to certain ways of travelling, you have to look for detours and plan ahead. But for the most part we have been connected to the rest of New Zealand, businesses are open, and the weather in March has been absolutely stunning.”
Burt said it was heartening to see new ventures open in recent weeks, despite the challenges thrown up by the cyclone.
Kā Uri, in Awanui, was “just stunning”, while Waipū Caves Farm Park had a strong emphasis on sustainability.
“Our message to New Zealand is to support the industry because it hasn’t had a good run in the last few years. Travel mindfully and slowly and plan ahead. Some people have visions of Northland going underwater like other places, but all the beautiful things you love about the region are still here. It’s so diverse and we have stories that no one else has. We have beautiful people and that Tai Tokerau manaakitanga (care for others).”
Northland Inc was currently working on an autumn ad campaign, with the timing to be decided in consultation with local operators as well as police and Waka Kotahi, to ensure it fitted in with road repair plans.
New chief executive Paul Linton had just spent several days in Wellington, rustling up more support for Northland businesses.
His requests to government agencies were for more resilient infrastructure, so roads didn’t have to be rebuilt after every extreme weather event; more direct-to-business support; and help with marketing Northland.
“Our budget just won’t stretch far enough to give our region what it needs,” Burt said.
The Advocate has spoken to a number of accommodation providers to gauge the state of their bookings.
All had experienced a wave of cancellations in the weeks immediately after the cyclone but most said bookings had now returned to normal, albeit at the lower levels typical for autumn.
■ As of yesterday, SH1 over the Brynderwyns was open for northbound traffic only. Light southbound traffic could use the Cove Rd detour via Waipū and Mangawhai. Heavy vehicles had to travel via Dargaville on SH12 and SH14. See the story on P3 for the latest on SH1.