After many years of living abroad, I recently returned for a visit to my old home city, Christchurch. A trip that was an emotional homecoming which was as enlightening as it was sad.
For those that have not endured the trip to the third largest city of New Zealand, (which is situated on the East coast of the South Island) Christchurch is a city that is heavily populated by European ideals. With God and the Queen of England going equally hand in hand with central beliefs this is a city that feels like it would be more fitting in the heart of England than in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Originally colonised by English and French settlers, Christchurch in all its glory still holds tight to its English ties. Remnants of the colonial era
Even after the destruction of a major earthquake that crippled infrastructure, changed livelihoods forever and unforgiving aftershocks reminding how fragile life is, Christchurch is a city that is still heavily populated by English ideals.
As a gateway to some of the natural wonders of New Zealand, Christchurch was the pinnacle of international destinations for years. Boasting some of the best natural attractions within 200 kms in any direction. You literally could ski in the morning, fish in the early afternoon and go for a surf before dinner.
With a little over 300,000 permanently residing locals, the major earthquake that struck in 2011 ground the city to a halt. Staggering the growth of the city, not only in population but financially as well.
With a bright tourism future, Christchurch perhaps had to endure one of the worst natural disasters in New Zealand history. For a city that depends on every ounce of entrepreneurship and tourist dollar more than most other cities of New Zealand, this natural destruction has become a part of history that will forever remain a dark period in the small island nation.
It has been eight years since the city was shaken by the September 2010 earthquake (which was a magnitude of 7.1 and only 10kms deep, close to the centre of Christchurch city.) Which then further triggered the 2011 devastating 6.5 magnitude earthquake, (killing 185 people) This once vibrant city still shows signs of having been bought to its knees by the hand of God, mother nature or whoever you believe in. Now it is a ghost town within every respect. Buildings that were once childhood landmarks are now a grassy patch in the middle of despair. Empty sections and derelict buildings have become a vandal’s playground and a graffiti artists canvas.
Prior to the earthquakes, most of Christchurch’s central city buildings were destined to become a heritage listed, yet the destruction of the central city Cathedral and various other 100-year-old buildings have been replaced by single story dwellings, architecturally designed with no character, atmosphere or reminder of the past. Most buildings now house conglomerate corporations that seem to be more for show for tourists than businesses that turn a profit. Everywhere you look it was a sombre reminder of what has been lost in a city that was once the dubbed the gateway to paradise.
Yet, despite all of the misfortunes Christchurch has endured over nearly a decade ago the locals show resilience. Some industries are thriving and in particular, hospitality.
With the main hub of dining having been the city’s CBD and all the major hotels situated in the heart of the city, it was always going to be a question of how hospitality and tourism would be able to survive after the devastation of the earthquake.
From pop up restaurants on empty lots where multi storey buildings used to block the sun to shipping containers that was initially utilised as makeshift shops just after the earthquakes, the city has at least been able to keep some momentum alive. However, as most of the centre city closed operations, the suburban sprawl began and with it, shopping centres have turned into foodie hubs. In every suburb now, restaurants that once dominated the city centre, are now found centre stage in these suburban outdoor eating arenas. The atmosphere and location may have changed, but the food remains some of the best in Australasia.
Hospitality and tourism is treated very differently in New Zealand in the public eye. The average patron recognises that the back bone of a nation that sits at the edge of the planet, is its small business operators and without the public support and expenditure of the local dollar this part of the economy would falter.
Public perception of hospitality appears to have played an important part in the success of hospitality in Christchurch. Here, Cantabrians (as the locals are fondly named, due to Christchurch being situated in the centre of the province Canterbury) recognise that restaurants, cafes and conference centres are an important factor to the success of the local economy.
One thing that became abundantly clear during our visits to some of these restaurants was instead of coming up with excuses on the failure of eateries, (excuses like the lack of customers) Kiwis come up with solutions.
As restaurants continue to close in Australia the restaurants in Christchurch are remaining active. Some even thriving.
What’s the key to their success?
Moving with the times, not following trends and keeping everything local, seems to be the main feature of most of the restaurants that we visited. Changing their business models to suit the current situation is another apparent, logical format that most seem to have taken on board. A lesson that could be learnt from a few restaurant operators here in Australia in the current wake of restaurant closures.
What was also interesting was franchise food outlets did not have a stronghold in the dining arena resurgence of Christchurch. Fast food giant McDonalds was even hard to find in some places.
As the city centre begins its restructure the restaurants are reopening. Of course, there will always be the ones that ultimately can’t keep afloat, but the ones that do are successful. The hotels are starting to thrive again and the local council is placing more emphasis on bringing people back to the city.
Without the locals however, the garden city hospitality and tourism scene would struggle. The usual financial issues aside this is a city that has come together in a moment of adversary and it seems that this stand in solidarity is paying off.
In hospitality, at least.