Dunedin Airport will once more be an international airport if Tourism Minister Matt Doocey has his way.

“Something I have heard very clearly today, and something which I will be a strong advocate for, is that we need to see the return of international flights to Dunedin,” Mr Doocey told the Otago Daily Times.

“Flights are about connectivity, they bring loved ones home for important events, they bring visitors who bring income and jobs to an area, and for areas like Otago it gets valuable produce out to market as well — I think sometimes people forget that planes are an important part of the freight chain.”

Virgin Australia formerly flew direct weekly flights between Brisbane and Dunedin, but all its New Zealand services were suspended at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

No other airline has filled that void since border restrictions were lifted, although international flights have returned to Queenstown and new services — such as a direct link to the United States — have started out of Christchurch.

A recent quarterly update from airport co-owner Dunedin City Holdings Ltd said “promising inroads” were being made on the return of international services to the city.

In October, Taieri teenager Benjamin Paterson launched a campaign to reinstate international flights to Dunedin, which garnered more than 2500 responses.

Mr Doocey, the National MP for Waimakariri, said overseas visitors and local travellers wanted competition and choice.

“When you think about how you might travel from the bottom of the South Island to the top of the top of the South Island, or on to the North Island, for me Dunedin is quite a logical place to start.

“I’m mindful previous international flights were from Australia … and Australia is still somewhat a market that we underestimate and that there is still potential to grow the market out of Australia significantly. I think we can do more.”

Mr Doocey, who was in Dunedin as part of a week of meetings across New Zealand with tourism operators, said he had been running round-table forums with interested parties, as well as having a series of one-on-one meetings.

“I have really valued having free and frank discussions where I can understand what the issues are for them … and to hear from them about the work that they need me to be doing.”

The new coalition government has halted the previous government’s “industry transformation” programme [ITP], a process which the tourism sector was well advanced through.

Mr Doocey said the tourism sector had been very involved in the process and some good work had been done, but overall a more direct approach was needed.

“My former colleague Michael Woodhouse [ex-Dunedin National list MP] was strong in that policy development, because what we thought was that there were parts of ITP which were very bureaucratic, and it was funding more consultants to draft reports that weren’t going anywhere.”

Tourism was savaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and went from employing about 8% of the workforce and making up a fifth of New Zealand’s export income in 2019, to ground zero during lockdown.

While domestic visitors tried their best to keep the sector afloat a third of people directly employed in the tourism sector lost their jobs, and volumes of overseas visitors have yet to return to pre-Covid levels.

During the Covid lull the sector has been debating its future, and in particular whether it should aim to boost the volume of visitors or focus on attracting fewer people but them being in New Zealand for longer.

Mr Doocey said there was no such thing as a deserving or an undeserving tourist, and regional destination management plans should be used to ensure whoever visited New Zealand, for whatever reason, should have a great time.

“The regions should decide what in our area, regarding tourism and hospitality, what are our strengths, what are our challenges, what are our opportunities, and what type of tourism that we would like to have.

“I thought it was disappointing that the last government gave backpackers a kick because when you look at some of the smaller towns it is the backpacker who goes there, buys a coffee, buys lunch, maybe works behind the bar, and I am keen to grow tourism and see how we can bring regional development to some areas.”

[email protected] , Political editor