A partnership between New Zealand’s largest rural tours’ operator and the Cambridge i-Site will result in a significant boost to Waipā’s tourism industry and give farmers an added income stream.
And the idea came from a Japanese woman who “married a Kiwi guy”, settled in Cambridge and saw first-hand, while working in the town’s visitor centre, the opportunity to capitalise on a tourism upswing post Covid.
Seiko Wilson, who worked for Rural Tours, took the seed of her idea to Destination Cambridge general manager Ruth Crampton and Rural Tours manager Melissa Beets.
On Monday she was among the toasts with Destination Cambridge’s board and volunteers when Rural Tours owners Russell Alexander – also chief executive and co-owner of Hobbiton – and Tony Boot announced the $45,000 a year partnership.
It was just the fillip the struggling tourism organisation needs on the eve of a decision by Waipā District Council whether or not to continue funding the two i-Sites in Cambridge and Te Awamutu.
That funding uncertainty – Destination Te Awamutu and Destination Cambridge both get $147,868 this financial year while Hamilton-Waikato Tourism gets $171,864 – was an issue hanging over Destination Cambridge and explained the board’s decision to become more entrepreneurial.
At the announcement, chair Lucy Young said tourists, particularly from the Japanese market, were coming back.
“We can’t sit here and expect business to come to us,” she said.
The partnership with Rural Tours was an exciting opportunity to “nurture our rural community”, give tourists the chance to connect with the land and have genuine experiences while showcasing Waipā’s rural sector.
In addition to Japanese students, adult tourists from lucrative Europe, UK and North American markets like the opportunity to stay on New Zealand farms with “genuine” working farmers.
New hosts would be needed and with milk payouts down and costs up, it was a chance for another income, said Young.
Sustainability is a big thing and the modern world of farming in Waipā was all about that.
Boot explained a change in the Japanese education curriculum gave New Zealand the chance to provide more rural tours for teenagers.
The government mandated that every school must offer an excursion to its students either domestically or internationally. Several schools chose to provide their students with a rural experience in New Zealand.
Rural Tours’ forerunner was a 1980s operation run in Cambridge out of what was then the pink church but is now Good Union. Joy Thomas and Helen Hicks persuaded farmers’ wives to open their spare rooms for guests and went on to cater for more than 1000 tourists a year.
Boot, who worked with that Cambridge company, went on to link up with Alexander in 2014 when Hobbiton was getting requests to provide farm stays.
“It didn’t make sense to compete.”
The men, who attended Waikato University together, caught up at a conference and joined forces to become Rural Tours which pre Covid was a thriving multi-million business operating out of Cambridge Raceway. It now turns over about $1.5 million in Waipā and twice that through the Waikato. Forward bookings already suggest they will blow those figures out of the water.
“Tourism is on its way back,” said Alexander who said Hobbiton was already seeing the visitor mix “swinging back.”
Seiko Wilson had worked at Rural Tours and swapped over to the i-Site and it was then she saw an opportunity.
“Seiko came up with this great idea and I happened to be here at the time – so all the stars aligned – she said: ‘I love working at the i-Site, but I also loved the rural tours, is there a way of making it work’,” said Boot.
He and Crampton worked on the opportunity which resulted in the partnership. Both organisations are now looking to sign up more farmer hosts from Waipā farms – dairy, sheep, beef, deer, equine and horticulture were all areas of interest for tourists.
“Seiko is an absolute jewel,” said Crampton, who can now concentrate on finalising Destination Cambridge’s submission to the council.
Destination Te Awamutu chair Shane Walsh confirmed his organisation was also prepared to argue the case for continued council funding for the Te Awamutu i-Site.
“We’re like Destination Cambridge in that respect,” he said.