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March 2021 Issue
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Guiding through a year of Covid

Chris Prudden, right, says adventure tourism was fuelled by overseas travellers and bookings have dropped off entirely

Covid-19 has knocked the wind out of the outdoor guiding industry in New Zealand, and when times return to ‘normal’ we should tread carefully.

I don’t have any incoming notifications activated on my phone, other than ring. I rate the call as the only important one; if someone wants you, they will phone.

However, most mountaineering companies I have worked for in Queenstown for the last 20 years also usually send emails and text messages about future alpine guiding and instruction jobs.

The phone has stopped ringing and I scroll frustratingly through the apps looking for something that resembles an alpine job around this former tourist mecca.

People are still out there exploring and climbing, but the only time my phone rings are for social occasions or for an Alpine Cliff Rescue call-out.

The New Zealand strategy to protect our communities from Covid-19 has been a strong and effective one. It generally shut out most of the possible virus carriers and ensured only controllable numbers were coming in.

Last year’s winter proved to be quite survivable for me. The snow season has always been an attraction in itself and I spent most of the winter teaching enthusiastic Kiwis about the environment, skills and gear and also about themselves. It was quite a highlight speaking full Kiwi dialect on the job and I enjoyed our automatic understanding and shared sense of humour.

As someone who works with people in the mountains, my whole life has been dictated to me by a collection of factors – people, environment and activity. I was always trying to sort the day(s) for the preferred outcomes, finishing our chosen activity with happy and healthy clients.

We can sort many things for our clients – fitness, gear, personalities and attitude – but the one we can’t sort is the people not showing up at all. My usual client base is 80 per cent Australian and the rest are mostly from the US and Europe.

But, like a hut door slamming shut, the end of winter spelled the end of work. All of the outdoor guides and instructors involved in tourism told me the same thing: no work, no customers.

That long time realisation hit home: most Kiwis go to the beach in summer and most keen outdoors people can self-guide in the fine and warm conditions.

This situation is unprecedented for me with 40 years’ in the outdoor/tourism industry.

If our Covid problem can be sorted by an effective vaccine combined with rapid and accurate testing, then I am sure our tourism industry will benefit directly.

But as a Queenstowner, do I want to see pre-Covid tourism numbers come back? No thanks. Iit was out of control and while it fuelled investor optimism, the huge number of budget visitors were overwhelming facilities, the town infrastructure and our accessible conservation and natural areas.

As an alpine guide and instructor, I had a specific clientele; a small number of the total volume and usually not included in the Instagram-posting ‘free’ travellers. They targeted their activity and their guides. They were discerning and had money.

The amazing New Zealand outdoors is still there. It still inspires me daily and I can visit it anytime, just unpaid and not teaching, motivating or helping my smiling enthusiastic customers.

I’m still putting time and effort into mountain rescue; the work and the team inspire me. But that’s always been unpaid.

Yep, I would like my sustainable lifestyle back again and to get paid for taking people on great experiences in the mountains. However, getting Covid into our community or going back to our mountain island being overrun by budget tourism is not part of the deal for me.

We will survive and learn from this.

Kia kaha.