The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the travel industry, as hotels , restaurants and airlines in destinations around the world find themselves losing money or dramatically cutting back costs as they try to survive.
But there’s one place on the planet where there are too many tourists right now – the Chatham Islands.
Never heard of them? It’s all right because you aren’t the only one.
Technically, the small Pacific Ocean archipelago (an extensive group of islands) along the international date line is part of New Zealand.
And since the borders of New Zealand remain largely closed and locals are advised not to fly overseas at this time, the Chathams which is about 500 miles east of the South Island of the country have become the hottest getaway for the country’s residents in 2020.
The Chathams, whose two key inhabited islands are Chatham Island and Pitt Island, receive about 2,000 visitors in a typical year. That compares with around 700 full-time residents, most of whom live on the largest of the archipelago, Chatham Island.
2020, however, is not a typical year.
The remote advantage
The remoteness of the Chathams generally makes it a part of the country that New Zealanders never get to see. Now, with travel-starved New Zealanders turning to the islands as a way to feel like they are on a far-off vacation without having to quarantine or take a COVID-19 test, that remoteness is an advantage.
“It happened quite quickly,” Jackie Gurden, the islands’ tourism manager, explains about the tourism spike in the Chathams. “It’s a bit more expensive to get out here so you don’t get young people looking for a cheap holiday, and there are no beach resorts or anything.”
But once the international borders were closed due to the pandemic, Tourism New Zealand, the official national tourism board of the country, had to pivot from promoting their country to foreign tourists in order to promote domestic travel. That made the usually-sleepy Chathams suddenly a hot commodity.
However, demand is far outstripping supply. In a mix of hotels, lodges, guesthouses and local homes that list themselves on sites like Airbnb that there are 150 beds on the islands, Ms. Gurden said. Most property is owned privately, and camping is prohibited.
Air Chathams, which operates only a handful of flights per week between Chatham Island and what locals refer to as “the mainland,” is the only airline serving the archipelago.
The tourism season usually runs from around November to March, which is the summer in the southern hemisphere. But now, all on-island accommodation is solidly booked until June 2021. Even Ms. Gurden, who lives on the North Island of New Zealand, isn’t sure she’ll be able to find a spot to stay when she returns next time.
Days nestled in the nature
Most visitors to the Chathams in the past were older travelers who were seeking a peaceful place to get away from everything. Prices can be high, as it is necessary to ship a lot of food and fuel from mainland New Zealand.
But the breathtaking scenery is worth the trip once you’re able to get there.
The first inhabited place in the world to see the sun rise every day is believed to be Pitt Island. The Chathams were the Gondwanaland supercontinent’s easternmost piece, meaning it has a fascinating array of terrains, including basalt columns a la the Giant’s Causeway and volcanic cones.
The islands are also home to some of the rarest birds in the world, plus a huge and adorable colony of seals.
In some ways, a rise in tourism is a big benefit for the islands, where most people work in the farming or fishing industries.
The islands have also obtained a grant from the government of New Zealand to help with infrastructure projects, such as public toilet facilities and airport upgrades. Even without a pandemic, 2020 was shaping up to be the time to shine for the Chathams.