Bringing confidence back

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    Throughout Project Forever’s exhaustive report on the future of tourism on Waiheke, Covid hangs like a spectre, haunting each question and statistic with its new and potent impact on residents’ and business confidence.

    Had the surveys been conducted, say, three years ago, the results would no doubt have been similar in revealing the ideological divides between those who rely on the tourism dollar, those who fear overtourism risks “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” and those who feel visitors simply have a negative impact on island life.

    But the pandemic has not only magnified those feelings, but also introduced whole new hurdles that Waiheke’s tourism industry must surmount.

    First, the magnifying glass: “The 2020 University of Auckland/Project Forever Waiheke survey of Waiheke residents found that Waiheke Islanders had experienced the Covid-19 lockdowns as a revelation of (i) how much more accessible and enjoyable the island’s natural and community assets were without tourists, (ii) how much residents’ motives for living on Waiheke were reinforced as a result, and (iii) how apparent it became to residents that the intrinsic qualities of both the island’s community and the natural environment needed to be better protected in future.”

    A year on, however, and the report’s authors conducted a survey of nearly 100 Waiheke businesses between March and July (so notably before the current debilitating lockdowns) and revealed the reduction in both employment and income almost across the board was countered by a near 50 percent rate of positive business confidence on the back of predictions of strong domestic tourism and the potential for re-opened international borders.

    What’s more, a sizeable number of respondents had been “highly creative in their actions to sustain their operations”, many had taken a “community-orientated focus… towards staff retention” and two businesses – EcoZip and Waiheke Dive and Snorkel – were singled out for winning awards for “aroha and community spirit in their operations during the pandemic”.

    Confidence has no doubt taken a further hit over the past six weeks and we’re a long, long way from being out of the woods yet, but these survey responses do reveal a willingness on the part of business to help carry the community through the pandemic.

    As much as Covid has proven to be a watershed for business, it is bound to have a significant and lasting impact on all Waiheke residents. This comes through loud and clear in the startling statistic from Project Waiheke’s report that “Nearly one third of all residents (30%) felt Covid-unsafe currently on the ferries, and residents’ concerns with visitors’ (and some residents’) non-compliance with masking regulations have been repeatedly reported on Waiheke social media”.

    Not a week passes at Gulf News without readers contacting us to discuss mask compliance on ferries and the risk of Covid reaching Waiheke, so it’s no surprise that one of the main recommendations of the tourism report’s authors tackles the debate head-on.

    “Given the popularity of Waiheke to tourists in the ongoing pandemic context, and visitors’ common flouting of masking requirements, an interim plan is needed for protecting the Waiheke community from a Covid-19 outbreak on the island, through either unregulated ferry travel or uncontrolled visitor access to the island as New Zealand experiences a community outbreak of the Delta variant, and when the international borders re-open.”

    This week, Professor Michael Baker tells Gulf News that mask-wearing anomalies such as the ridiculous notion that they can be dispensed with to eat or drink in a situation where they’re deemed otherwise vital must be stamped out in response to the much more strident Delta variant. But, as the Forever Waiheke report details, there’s another admittedly heavy-handed but nonetheless successful route to restoring the confidence of a third of our population – and that’s a “vaccine passport”.

    Since August, Italy’s version – called a certificazione verde or “green pass” – has been obligatory for most leisure activities and from mid-October will be a must for all public and private workers. In a country where residents are already used to carrying an identity card, and which is still smarting from being the initial epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, a health certificate for those vaccinated, recovered or with a recent negative coronavirus test has been easy to swallow.

    In neighbouring France, less so. And they’ve had the barricades and violent protests to show how many dislike what they see as government-driven segregation.

    But now it’s dawning on us that New Zealand is going to have to open our borders and live with this illness for years to come, doesn’t it make sense to arm ourselves with every conceivable defence? Vaccination will help to protect each and every one of us – but for a place like Waiheke, where our tourism industry has shown a willingness and aptitude to bounce back and we’re bound to see fuller ferries sometime soon, surely residents deserve the added layer of confidence that proof of vaccination will bring. • James Belfield

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