Some Bay of Islands businesses are reporting their best trading since the Covid pandemic began as tourist towns, such as Paihia and Russell, fill up with international visitors and New Year’s revellers.

The only clouds on their horizon are the closure of State Highway 1 over the Brynderwyns from late February next year, and the literal clouds which could put a dampener on this weekend’s festivities.

Riki Kinnaird, co-owner of Russell’s iconic Duke of Marlborough Hotel, said the New Year period had been fully booked more than a month ago.

“That was normal trading for us pre-Covid, so it feels like that’s good. We’re quietly confident but still a bit nervous because of the rain.

“Last year was also looking good, but we got smacked in the guts by Cyclone Gabrielle, and we’re really concerned about the Brynderwyns closing in March.”

Three cruise ships in two days, with a combined 5300 passengers on board, will add to the crowds in the Bay of Islands this weekend.

Cruise ship ambassador Anika Whapshott said the cruise liner, Queen Elizabeth, was due on Saturday followed by Celebrity Edge and boutique vessel Silver Whisper on Sunday.

Sunday’s influx would be managed by bringing the passengers from the larger ship to Waitangi jetty, while those from the smaller ship would head directly to Paihia wharf.

Whapshott said many passengers had pre-booked excursions but because all tours were operated by local businesses, that spending went into Northland pockets.

Popular excursions included waka trips with Taiamai Tours, kayaking to Haruru Falls and guided visits to Kawiti glow worm caves.

The annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display, funded by local businesses and launched from a barge, drew as many as 5000 people to the Paihia waterfront, but that was highly weather dependent.

Whapshott said Russell had also been “absolutely bustling” in the past week, even when there were no cruise ships in the Bay.

“It’s chock-a-block, really vibrant and fabulous.”

Keri Te Kuru, manager of Admiral’s View Lodge in Paihia, said the motel was fully booked, bar the odd room which would be snapped up in coming days, until mid-January.

The motel started getting busy in October and she expected that to continue until March or April.

Occupancy during the past year averaged just under 80%, which was approaching pre-pandemic levels.

“We haven’t seen anything like this since 2020, before Covid,” Te Kuru said.

Flying Kiwi Parasail co-owner Julia De Rosa said Paihia was packed.

“The restaurants are busy, there’s an awesome summer vibe all around… It’s lovely to see so many people. I wish the sun would come out a bit more but we can’t control that.”

Overseas visitors in particular were back in numbers, De Rosa said.

“There’s a lot of Americans and Indonesians around. The internationals are definitely here, and they’re spending.”

There were also plenty of Kiwis holidaying in Paihia but they were more cautious with their money, which she put down to cost-of-living pressure.

Only the prospect of rain cast a shadow over the next few days’ trading, but she said Northland weather was so changeable it could end up being quite different to the forecast.

News that State Highway 1 over the Brynderwyns will be closed from late February for repairs means a good summer is even more vital than usual for tourism operators.

Originally, NZTA planned to close the highway for seven weeks from 7 February, but after an outcry from Northland businesses that has been postponed until 26 February.

The Brynderwyns will reopen for Easter, on 27 March, and close again on 3 April until the job is finished.

In total, the closure is expected to last nine weeks. Detours will be available.

Duke of Marlborough co-owner Kinnaird was among those who called for the closure to be delayed further.

Even with a good summer, Northland businesses needed March income, he said.

The cost to Northland businesses of closing the Brynderwyns in March was about $1 million a day more than if the roadworks were left until after Easter.

Kinnaird said that eclipsed the extra cost to transport operators of a later, and longer, closure.

By Peter de Graaf of rnz.co.nz

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