11 Nov 2013

Tongan tourism operator says NZ stance on plane is devastating

6:16 pm on 11 November 2013

A resort owner and board member of the Tonga Tourism Authority says the New Zealand travel advisory to tourists is needlessly ruining businesses in Vava'u.

New Zealand's foreign minister Murray McCully has withheld tourism aid funds and is warning tourists that the MA-60 plane flying to Vava'u is unsafe.

The plane was gifted from China and has been internationally accredited, but the owner of the Tonga Beach Resort, Shane Walker, says two other resorts have already closed and a third may soon follow.

He spoke to Alex Perrottet.

SHANE WALKER: Tourists travelling to Va'vau, it's literally just stopped. It's like someone has turned off a switch. And, really, the place is emptying out. There are a thousand beautiful places around the world to go and when you have a travel advisory issued by a government on travelling to one particular destination, obviously people are going to look at other places as their first choice. I think it's going to be particularly hard over the next few months in Va'vau as it really starts to bite. The operators, it's a small community and we're very reliant on tourism. Our population is 17,000 in the Va'vau Island group, and a mostly Tongan community, we're extremely reliant on tourists to make ends meet, so it's going to have significant impacts for us all.

ALEX PERROTTET: The problem with this ongoing saga is it's at a bit of a stalemate. From a tourism authority point of view, what sort of strategies is Tonga looking at?

SHANE WALKER: We are working very closely with government to try and stress the importance of finding resolution for this. Even today there's been some interesting facts come to light. I was told this afternoon, with some authority, that Samoa is looking at getting an MA-60. That's happening now. I guess that would be the plane being ordered. If that is the case, then here's another Pacific neighbour looking at getting one of these aircrafts. It's very important for the tourism industry to find a resolution. Personally, I think, having done a lot of research on the subject myself, that it's a massive overreaction. But then as a government industry, if he's got reasons for concern, I guess he's within his rights to tread on the side of caution. I don't think any of us really understood just how far this would go and the ramifications of it. This has the makings of completing destroying Tonga's tourism industry. Unfortunately when people read these travel advisories, they don't necessarily understand that it's only one of the outer islands in the kingdom. This is only one aircraft operating to one of the outer island groups. People also maybe get a little bit confused thinking that if they fly anywhere near Tonga they're going to end up on an MA-60 that's the centre of this travel advisory. Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia operate in here virtually on a daily basis, so the potential is that the whole of Tonga tourism will suffer dramatically and we're hoping to minimise that as much as possible.