Jacinda travelled to Queenstown last week to announce $85 million of government funding, aimed at assisting the town’s Town Centre project and also to help fund stage one of Queenstown’s Arterials projects. These projects are not of immediate assistance to the tourism sector, but will be funded partly from the government’s allocation to infrastructure and are expected to create up to 320 jobs.
Yes, once again we have the prospect of baristas turning into hammerhands, but that is not the point of this article.
That Queenstown needs assistance is without question. It is one of the worst hit areas of the country since COVID-19 shut our borders, so these projects must be welcome to the region.
A little more questionable is the $10.2 million of government funding expected to go to AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand, comprising a grant of $5.1 million in the first year, and a loan of a further $5.1 million in the second year. When asked at the announcement, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis did not know what the interest rate for the loan would be.
I have heard a lot of comments about this proposal, mostly around the fact that the business has generated millions in revenue over the years and must have made the operators very wealthy, but presumably the government sees good reason to pump money into it from its $400 million tourism fund. Indeed, the Minister of Tourism thinks it is a worthwhile investment for the taxpayer to fund.
Minister for tourism Kelvin Davis said it was important to protect a “world-famous tourism asset” that offered flow-on benefits to its local community.
“AJ Hackett Bungy has been giving thrill-seekers exhilarating experiences for more than 30 years,” he said.
“With our borders closed to protect us from COVID-19, the downturn in visitor numbers is felt far and wide, not only by the operator but also by other local businesses who cater to visitors through accommodation, hospitality and retail.”
While questions may be raised about which ventures should receive government assistance, no one will deny that AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand is world-renowned and as such is probably a business worth saving. Many other businesses may feel that they are worth saving too, and while some of them will receive assistance, I guess we can’t fund everything.
One less sexy but rather more important business that needs assistance, however, is St John’s Ambulance. The service has been reported as suffering from a funding shortage of approximately $30 million recently, and job losses are threatened in a service that is already struggling to meet the needs of sick New Zealanders. St John’s Ambulance is already partly government-funded, but clearly it needs further assistance to allow it to continue to provide essential services to the country’s health sector.
“Our specialist jumpmasters, who require two or four years of rigorous training to develop the skills they need to coach people to jump off a bridge, are crucial to our operation’s ongoing sustainability.
“If we can keep them working and using their specialist skills we’ll be in a much better position longer term.”
Yes, it is very desirable to keep the experienced jumpmasters employed, particularly as there is a drive to persuade New Zealanders to visit tourist hotspots within their own country, where Queenstown must be a favoured location for many local tourists later in the year, but while we may need jumpmasters here in New Zealand, it is fair to say that we need ambulance personnel too.
Given a choice, most of us would give priority to the ambulance service over bungy jumpmasters, but there is really no reason why we cannot have both. It seems that there is plenty of money to splash around at the moment, but not, it would seem, in the direction of essential services.
The fact is that throwing money at AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand may not actually save it. This may be the government’s way of apologising for closing the borders, but the future of many tourism businesses is far from certain. What would save them all is letting the tourists back in. No one knows when that will happen, and if it goes on for too long, local tourists will not be enough to save those businesses relying on the extra two or three million people a year who come here.
Unlike many people, I am not criticising the government for giving handouts to the tourist industry to help them to stay in business until the borders are open. But to fund a bungy jumping business while our ambulance service goes over the cliff does seem to me to show a strange set of priorities.
Maybe we should get the Minister of Health onto it. Now, there’s a thought.
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