South suffers the worst of unemployment caused by Covid-19 [RNZ, 2/12/20]

Covid-19 has caused economic pain throughout the country, but nowhere more than the lower South Island where the number of people on the Jobseeker benefit has increased.

Unsurprisingly tourist mecca Queenstown Lakes has been hardest hit with the number on Jobseeker benefits rising from 102 in February to 592 by October – a spike of 480 percent.

Its neighbours are also doing it tough with Mackenzie, Central Otago and Southland among the 10 most affected districts in the country.

Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said there was no denying the enormity of the pandemic’s effects on the district’s economy, but the intervention of the council and the community had cushioned the blow.

“We had a report done by Infometrics early in the piece after lockdown which predicted a much worse situation than has actually occurred,” he said.

“That was based on a ‘do-nothing’ scenario and we certainly haven’t done nothing. But if you come back to the fact that international tourism was worth $1.9 billion to our small part of the world – that’s gone and it’s going to be some time before it comes back, so things are pretty tough.”

There was also hope on the horizon for some of the community’s hardest hit residents, he said.

Changes to the Ministry of Social Development’s work visa rules for migrant workers in the district meant about 1000 migrant workers – some of whom had been in New Zealand for a decade or longer – who had been surviving on government support for months, could now return to work, Boult said.

“The logic of it is rather than government having to support them this allows them to take jobs that are available that Kiwis aren’t available for or haven’t taken up and earn an income. The feedback I get from all of these people is they’d much prefer to be working than on a benefit of some description,” he said.

But there was no doubting Queenstown’s almost singular focus on tourism exacerbated the problem for the resort.

Simon Telfer, chair of the district’s regenerative recovery group, said the sector was already causing headaches in the district before the pandemic.

“You look at Wānaka Airport and Queenstown Airport [and] their challenges. You look at wastewater and three waters infrastructure. You look at transport and transport infrastructure, impact on the environment, impact on the cohesion of the community – those were conversations that were all being had pre-Covid and Covid has certainly brought them to light,” Telfer said.

“We have a chance … to reset. But you have to have discipline around that because it’s very easy to go back to what made the district money historically and fall into that trap.”

That was essentially the regenerative recovery group’s mandate and opportunities for diversifying the district’s economy was a top priority to protect future economic fallout.

Queenstown Lakes had the resources, manpower and capability to be at the forefront of IT and sustainable agriculture in New Zealand, Telfer said.

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