Backpackers Tokyo

WARWICK SMITH/STUFF

Entrepreneur Arthur Chin delights online audiences around the globe by running virtual farm tours from his lifestyle block at Tiritea, east of Palmerston North.

Over the past year 5000 people from 32 countries have toured Arthur Chin’s Palmerston North lifestyle block without setting foot in New Zealand.

Families bored witless by lockdown, English language students in Japan, and groups of American workers from Amazon and Uber have met Chin’s sheep, chickens and kunekune pigs on virtual Zoom tours.

Chin started New Zealand Nature Highlights with a $200 investment in a blue tooth headset and a selfie stick, earning $5000 in his best week, which did not include up to $1500 from sales of souvenir socks, T-shirts and shopping bags.

The former Singaporean banker is one of only a handful of operators offering livestreaming to counter the impact of the border closure, but other agri-tourism​ businesses are still thriving on a purely domestic market.

READ MORE: * Ruapehu: Secret spots off the mountain * Country Calendar: Blue Duck Station becomes holiday destination * Middle Hill mountainbike park opens on quake-damaged farm near Kaikōura

Blue Duck Station owner Dan Steele​ braced himself for a financial “train wreck” without the bus-loads of backpackers and other overseas visitors who made up 80 per cent of his tourism business, so he was surprised when last year’s revenue was 20 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.

Arthur Chin has named his favourite hen KFC. The time difference is a challenge when live-streaming his farm tours to some Northern Hemisphere countries, and after accepting a 6am midwinter booking when it would still be dark, he rushed out and bought some LED lights. “People loved it because early morning is when the animals are more active.”

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Arthur Chin has named his favourite hen KFC. The time difference is a challenge when live-streaming his farm tours to some Northern Hemisphere countries, and after accepting a 6am midwinter booking when it would still be dark, he rushed out and bought some LED lights. “People loved it because early morning is when the animals are more active.”

“Visitor numbers were well down, but the quality was up. We get New Zealand families coming for five days bringing their children and saying ‘ we want to do everything because we can’t go to Fiji or Europe and this is our family holiday’, so the spend per person is well up.”

Marketer Marijke​ Dunselman​ recently set up the Agritourism NZ Network and runs courses for “asset rich, but cash poor” farmers wanting to diversify.

She says city folks avoiding crowded tourist hot spots happily pay to stay in remote accommodation, be it a rustic cottage or a five-star lodge, and most of the farmers she works with have had their best season ever without having to drop prices.

Harvesting a tourist crop

Tourism’s contribution to the rural economy is unclear because there is little data available on its size or value.

According to Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment surveys of international visitors, more than 4 million of them visited a farm or orchard in the five years before Covid-19 struck, but it’s not known how many of them paid for the experience.

A Beef and Lamb New Zealand survey two years ago found about 4 per cent of 9200 commercial sheep and beef farms ran accommodation and tourism operations, which accounted for 1 per cent of gross revenue, although it was up to 5 per cent for high country farms.

However, those figures do not include about 17,000 small holders, like Chin, or the many other rural properties, such as vineyards and orchards that offer tours, accommodation, four-wheel-drive trips, and classes in everything from spinning to forestry management.

In June, 70 people attended an agri-tourism seminar in Kaikōura, chosen as the location because local farms devastated by the 2016 earthquake had to look for new sources of income.

Dan Steele farms sheep, cattle and deer in the Ruapehu District, but tourism brought in a third of his income pre-Covid-19 and at its peak Blue Duck Station hosted 20,000 visitors a year.

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Dan Steele farms sheep, cattle and deer in the Ruapehu District, but tourism brought in a third of his income pre-Covid-19 and at its peak Blue Duck Station hosted 20,000 visitors a year.

The King family’s 560 hectare Clarence Valley property was lifted up to 12 metres in places, badly damaging farm buildings, and providing Genevieve King with the impetus to fulfill her long-held dream of building a mountain bike park.

The former ski patroller and rafting guide financed the park with the money she made catering for road workers doing lengthy post-quake repairs to State Highway 1.

The Papatea fault line that so violently fractured the landscape, helped in the earthworks for tracks designed by King’s partner Morgan Rigby.

“A crack opened up along the whole ridge exactly where I wanted the trail to go, so it was much more of a help than a hindrance.”

King’s father, Rick King, ran trophy hunting expeditions for overseas clients and the property still farms deer, but her focus now is solidly on the domestic cyclist market.

Genevieve King and her partner Morgan Rigby run Middle Hill Mountain Bike Park in the Clarence River Valley near Kaikōura. They used the alert level 4 lockdown as an opportunity to regroup and plan for the future.

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Genevieve King and her partner Morgan Rigby run Middle Hill Mountain Bike Park in the Clarence River Valley near Kaikōura. They used the alert level 4 lockdown as an opportunity to regroup and plan for the future.

She says the Covid lockdown was “weirdly spot on,” allowing them to recalibrate after a busy first six months, and continued demand from Kiwi mountain bikers is a chance to fine tune systems, so they are ready when internationals return.

Lincoln University senior lecturer in tourism management and rural social scientist Dr Joanna Fountain says Middle Hill is an example of how agri-tourism is allowing the next generation to return to the family farm and make a living.

Co-author of an agri-tourism​ guide, Fountain says the level of interest from farmers is higher than it was five years ago, and it is not always about money.

“A lot of my beef and sheep farmers say the reason they want to host visitors is to bridge the urban rural divide. It’s seen as a way to not only diversify income, but share stories of heritage, farming practices and ecological sustainability.”

Agri-tourism​ has evolved considerably from the days when it was mostly something for overseas visitors happy to munch scones and watch a dog herd sheep.

Cycle and walking trails, food foraging and star gazing featured highly when New Zealand visitors to the Hurunui District were asked what rural activities they would find appealing.

Middle Hill mountain bike park in the Clarence Valley targets experienced riders and generally there are no more than about a dozen having a blast on the 15km of trails.

Digby Shaw/Supplied

Middle Hill mountain bike park in the Clarence Valley targets experienced riders and generally there are no more than about a dozen having a blast on the 15km of trails.

However, Fountain points out, farmers contemplating such ventures have to think carefully about how it will affect their farming operations, and possibly those of their neighbours.

Are they prepared for the loss of privacy from a stream of visitors, the financial investment in marketing and facilities, and do they have the time and people skills required to keep customers satisfied and safe?

Given the potential for natural disasters, like earthquakes and flooding or landslides caused by torrential rain, Fountain says rural tourism operators need to be up front about those dangers.

“If you’ve got mountain bikers or walkers out on your farms, people staying in lovely little huts off the grid 30 minutes hike away from the homestead, do you have a good system for communicating risk in advance?

“I’ve talked to accommodation providers who say, ‘I used to tell all my visitors we are in a tsunami zone, but none of my competitors were, and I don’t want to scare people off’, so I think there’s still an issue around that”.

Farmstays now run the gamut from basic shearers’ quarters to luxury lodges and “glamping” tents with hot tubs.

Brook Sabin/supplied

Farmstays now run the gamut from basic shearers’ quarters to luxury lodges and “glamping” tents with hot tubs.

Catering for Kiwis

Steele​ agrees tourism is not for everyone, and it takes the right personality to pull it off. “You have to have a passion for rural New Zealand and a story about what you want to do.”

It is also labour-intensive and Blue Duck Station employs 12 staff. “You need all-rounders who are prepared to drive a jet boat, or guide a horse trek and then get stuck in and do the docking [of lambs] as well.”

In January Steele​ opened a new 10-seat restaurant with a 10-course degustation​ menu and adjoining luxury cabins on a remote hilltop, and bookings are already running at 60 per cent occupancy for next season.

He says they deliberately created packages targeting the domestic market – photography weekends, multi-day horse treks (BYO horse optional), motorbike camps, and father-son hunting trips with the added bonus of eradicating pests.

“Come and learn [hunting skills] on rabbits and goats, and take some meat home ... you’re doing a service to New Zealand conservation.”

Accustomed to hosting lots of foreign backpackers, Blue Duck Station in the Ruapehu District has extended its half-day horse treks to multi-day trips, and runs more family-oriented excursions.

Supplied

Accustomed to hosting lots of foreign backpackers, Blue Duck Station in the Ruapehu District has extended its half-day horse treks to multi-day trips, and runs more family-oriented excursions.

Making the switch from a largely international customer base to a purely Kiwi one was not easy for Kylie and Andrew Stewart whose Rangitikei Farmstay could accommodate up to 18 people in its quaint bunkhouse and cottages.

“It has been a real challenge, when you’re so sure of your customers, and it all gets taken away from you, it’s horrible,” says Kylie Stewart.

She ran about 15 virtual farm tours, but it was a trial ensuring livestock “stars” on the 650ha sheep and beef farm were close to the homestead for the Zoom sessions.

Overseas visitors loved staying in their garden accommodation and interacting with the family, but domestic customers “just want to be in the middle of the farm looking at native bush and listening to birds.”

Kiwis are also more active, “our international guests were not at all fond of exercise”, so the Stewarts laid on E-bikes, and created a large strawberry patch and vegetable garden where visitors can forage and fill a wooden crate for $25.

Stewart says over-indulgence in alcohol resulted in some unsavoury behaviour and led to closer screening of group bookings.

“One guy was walking around drunk with his shirt off in the family garden. Then we had guys vomiting through the hedges and hedges don’t respond well to vomit.”

Rangitikei Farmstay guests can “forage” in the property's extensive vegetable gardens and large strawberry patch.

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Rangitikei Farmstay guests can “forage” in the property's extensive vegetable gardens and large strawberry patch.

After years of turning paddocks into garden, Stewart is now running gardening workshops, and she does consults via Zoom, getting clients to walk her around their gardens, so she can advise on plant choices.

Farm to Farm Tours general manager Kirstie Macmillan​ says the pandemic was a real curve ball for the company her parents Linda and Ross Macmillan​ started in 1987.

Farm management consultant Ross Macmillan​ saw tourism, particularly the burgeoning Japanese market, as a way for farmers suffering from the loss of subsidies to supplement their income, and there were outbound trips too.

“Until Covid, every year for 26 years, apart from one year when there was a foot and mouth outbreak in the UK, we’ve been taking a group of New Zealand farmers to Scotland, Ireland and Wales for a three or four-week trip.”

With the inbound tap turned off until Australia sorts its latest virus outbreak, Macmillan is seeing more city residents among the active retirees signing up for her Mainland Muster tour and trips to the Chatham and Stewart Islands.

“For Kiwis we are spending a longer time in a smaller area, focussing on places that are a little more of an adventure.

“When we go to Northland we visit a local kumara grower and see how life is for them up there.”

Farm to Farm Tours customers explore rugged scenery on a Chatham Islands farm.

Supplied

Farm to Farm Tours customers explore rugged scenery on a Chatham Islands farm.

Virtual potential

Winnie Tan was trapped in Singapore separated from her boyfriend in Taiwan, so the couple celebrated their anniversary by paying $22 each for Chin’s farm tour.

She was particularly taken with the fact that his chickens “retire” to an area irrigated with grey water, where it is their job to keep on top of the worm population, and where they are buried when they die.

Massey University professional education advisor Mark Kaneko says the live mix of agricultural experience and environmental science beat YouTube hands down for a class of 18 to 21-year-old students from Meisei University in Japan who are studying English remotely from home.

“It’s not the same as being able to reach out and touch the lambs, but you can say to Arthur, ‘hey can I see that sheep again, what’s its name?’”

“You can visit more diverse places, [if the students were here] they would never have gone to Aurthur's farm because he’s in Palmerston North, and they would have been based in Auckland.”

Former banker Arthur Chin receives five-star ratings for hour-long livestream tours of his lifestyle block, and he runs workshops teaching others how to do it. His biggest group was 400 Singaporeans who watched from their homes in an event organised by the People’s Association of Singapore.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Former banker Arthur Chin receives five-star ratings for hour-long livestream tours of his lifestyle block, and he runs workshops teaching others how to do it. His biggest group was 400 Singaporeans who watched from their homes in an event organised by the People’s Association of Singapore.

For geographically scattered staff working remotely, the hour-long tour is an economical bonding exercise, and business groups make up more than half of Chin’s bookings.

Citibank​ in Hong Kong paid him just under $1000 to entertain 40 people, which he says is “peanuts” for corporations that can easily spend $50,000 flying staff to a central location for an event.

About 40 per cent of his customers, including Tan, eventually want to visit in person, but he believes demand for the virtual tour will continue once borders open because many people will be hesitant about long haul travel, and getting here is costly.

“This way they can travel to New Zealand in the morning, Russia in the afternoon and finish up in Hong Kong or Paris.”

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