International visitors and wildlife return to the West Coast

02 October 2023
Development West Coast
The West Coast has achieved a significant milestone. Not only has international visitor spending surpassed pre-pandemic levels, but iconic hotels are also reawakening and nature is presenting its own spectacle with the return of the endangered Kōtuku and Tawaki penguins.

Surge in international tourism

Data from MarketView indicates that international spending in the month of August 2023 rose 86% compared to August 2022, totalling $3 million. When compared to August 2019, this marks a 16% rise, and is the first-time international visitor spending has surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

"The recovery is very much well underway," remarked Patrick Dault, Development West Coast Destination and Tourism Manager.

Leading the pack of international tourists were Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Notably, US visitor spending in August surged by 146% compared to pre-pandemic August 2019.

Domestic tourism remained robust, with New Zealanders continuing to explore their backyard, propelling the total visitor expenditure on the West Coast for the year ending August 2023 to $197.2 million, a 46% increase ($61.7 million) from the previous year, and 7% above the pre-pandemic level.

Lake Mahinapua pub
Lake Mahinapua Hotel

Hotels reopen, reflecting renewed optimism

Signifying optimism in the tourism sector, iconic hotels such as the Heartland Hotel Glacier Country and Lake Mahinapua Hotel, which have been in hibernation since COVID, have opened their doors to greet guests once more.

The Lake Mahinapua Hotel, a symbol of the region's rich heritage since 1905 was originally owned by a Scottish miner who arrived on the West Coast in the late 1800s. The hotel gained nationwide attention after featuring in Mainland cheese commercials in the early 1990s.

More recently, the pub found new ownership under former Kiwi Experience co-owner Michael Warren, who fell in love with the West Coast during his time with Kiwi Experience and sought to preserve one of New Zealand's oldest and most beloved pubs.

"We are thrilled to reopen our doors and extend our hospitality beyond bus trips,” Warren said.

Nature’s return

Nature is also weaving its own remarkable comeback story, with two rare species returning to the West Coast for their annual breeding seasons.

The Kōtuku (White Heron), a critically endangered species with just 150-200 remaining, has begun its annual migration to Whataroa, its sole breeding ground in New Zealand. For New Zealanders, particularly the Māori, the Kōtuku is not just another bird; it's an emblem of rarity and good fortune. These birds, featured on the $2 coin, are deeply entrenched in the country’s cultural fabric. Their sighting, considered rare and auspicious, is akin to a blessing. Their association with good fortune is such that in 1953-54, during her visit, Queen Elizabeth II was compared to the Kōtuku by the Māori.

Their near-extinction in the 1930s and 1940s, due to the fashion trend of using White Heron feathers in women’s hats, threatened the species until protection measures were implemented in 1949. Predator control efforts by DOC and the team at White Heron Sanctuary Tours have been pivotal in ensuring the survival of these majestic birds.

Further south, on the shores of Lake Moeraki, the world’s third rarest penguin, the Tawaki (Fiordland Crested Penguins), have made their annual 2,000-kilometre journey back to the West Coast’s coastal rainforests for the breeding season.

The Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, working with the DOC, West Coast Penguin Trust, and Tawaki Project, has tracked penguin breeding for 33 years. Dr. Gerry McSweeny reports a near tripling in numbers, crediting pest control and local dog regulations.

Tawaki Penguins
Male Tawaki egg incubation

The West Coast is witnessing a resurgence, with international visitors returning, iconic hotels coming out of hibernation, and the annual return of the Kōtuku and Tawaki penguins, symbolising nature's own rejuvenation.

Other news