[ Article by Shawn Gough ]
[ Photographs by Josh Duncan ]

Tourism is an integral part of New Zealand’s economy. The government spends millions on promoting and selling our country to encourage visitors to major tourist attractions, cities and small towns. However, what happens when your industry is broken? Why do people come to a city that has lost its attractions, its central city and its vibe? I went out and about around the City Centre and spoke to the people who had chosen to use their stopover to view Christchurch to get answers to these questions.

It is a beautiful mid-winter’s day. The frost has left the ground, and blue covers the sky as the winter sun does its best to warm anyone walking around the city. I am here to see what is to see and who is here to see it. It is just after lunch and I am heading for the city centre to see the Cathedral. What I notice is how sparsely decorated the streets are. Yes, there are detours in place but it is empty. There are very few people. My first thoughts are perhaps the analysts were right. Perhaps the three earthquakes have had the impact on tourism their studies have shown. In a report on the economic effect of the earthquakes on Christchurch, Parker and Steenkamp [2012] looked at the impact and noted, “Tourism is another sector that has suffered significantly from the earthquakes. The central city had been the hub of tourist activity. But many of the attractions and many hotels have been demolished, and others remain either closed or still behind the central city cordon”.

Christchurch Tram

And as I walk towards the city’s iconic epicentre, I think maybe they are right – maybe Christchurch has suffered and is suffering from the devastation. However, in 2014, the central city is still a hub now that the cordon has been removed. The former attractions and hotels have been deconstructed but the tourists are there.

Christchurch Transitional CathedralLooking around the square, I see how the essence of the city is still resilient. While, in the past, visitors to our city would have ventured inside the Cathedral, the once proud icon of the city, today they focus on the new view that encapsulates the destruction and its effect. Some remember the old and some compare images they have seen of the city pre-quakes. But they are pointing their lenses through fence wire to capture a memory of their adventure. Is it still a positive experience? Yes, it appears to be. I watch as the tourists politely and without words organise their positions in the photo alcove. It is an area that has been provided by the Council to allow visitors to view the remains of the once proud Cathedral. It is a small opening in the fenced off boundary. Some opt for a snap that will provide a conversation piece when they return to their home countries while others manoeuvre themselves and their lens to artistically capture the specific light, emotion and aspect of the fallen gem.

Christchurch Transitional Cathedral

Enlightened, I head to New Regent Street. It is one of the spaces from pre-quake Christchurch that has survived and has re-opened its doors. It looks stunning and the light coming from the August sun reflects the vibrancy that this Spanish Mission-style architecture and colour scheme always had.

The street stands in what many consider a concrete wasteland but again, the tourists are here. They are snapping images of the street or attempting to showcase artistically the wasteland that surrounds the architectural oasis; turning ruins into art.

They are sitting, enjoying coffee and the fine food that the local cafes offer, and soaking in this street, their accents adding to the melody within the calamity of demolition and deconstruction. It feels like resurgence.

Christchurch Transitional CathedralNext, I head towards the Cardboard Cathedral and it is here that I meet the people that matter most to many businesses aiming to recover and strengthen the inner city’s vibrancy: the tourists. It should matter to us, as well, because the benefits affect us all. I want to know whether their trip is specified. Have they travelled here to see Christchurch or is it part of a larger tour of New Zealand and/or the South Island? What have they enjoyed about their visit? What do they think would improve the city’s attractiveness to other travellers?

The area adjacent to the Cardboard Cathedral shows a smattering of buildings. Adorned on a few are fine artworks by graffiti artists. They enliven the grey concrete surroundings. On the corner of Madras and Hereford sits this unconventional building. While many still debate whether the $5.3 million spent on this structure was worth it, the people I meet make it clear that it is.

Patrick and Marie Crook who hail from Sydney are first to mention how important this new tourist attraction is to the city. “It’s very impressive. The people inside are very friendly.” They also mention how light it is. This is the general consensus from the people I interview. They come to see the unusual structure that has become a landmark and a new attraction for the garden city. If tourists aren’t aware of its uniqueness, local operators are ensuring that visitors to our city are made familiar with this location.

That’s how Jeremy, Holly, and Cedar Vickery end up seeing me outside it. They are originally from San Francisco but now reside in Washington State and they were told to check out this interesting building for its design concepts. However, neither of these two groups are here by choice. Marie and Patrick are here because Patrick is on a business trip and the Vickerys are in New Zealand as part of a tour. That said, the Crooks still describe their visit as “breath-taking”. While Marie hasn’t been here since 2002, Patrick says, “I was here 4 months ago but now I couldn’t recognise some of the places I had seen then.” He further notes that while change is happening, it is still slow for a major destination and a major city. When I ask what he thought the planners of the Rebuild needed to keep in mind, his answer is simple; “A vibrancy of life. It can have restaurants and theatres but it needs a CBD. It needs good access and the trams should be a part of that plan.”

Re:Start Mall Christchurch

What else has impressed the view of our city? The Re:Start Mall. Many of the respondents stated how interesting this innovative design concept is. Jeremy Vickery calls it “interesting and inspiring”. And it is. No matter what time of the day you visit this mall, you see a multitude of visitors basking in this newfangled attraction. On this typical Christchurch day, I am one of many photographers trying to capture some angle of the layout of these containers, the vibrancy and its uniqueness.

Our city is on the rise. Those not initially intending to visit are coming to Christchurch and enjoying what is on offer.

There are specific attractions in the city that are becoming world-renowned because of their uniqueness and it is still a gateway to the other South Island attractions. The Vickerys are a testament to this ideal as they had spent the day before on a Lord of the Rings tour and were reinforced by skiers comments about using the city as a starting point.

It was also something that Patrick Crook had mentioned about Christchurch being the epicentre of the South Island and for that he said, “It needs attractions”. It has some and they are draw cards, but we
need more.

I head home with renewed feeling about how the Garden City is being viewed. It is a city with a view. Whether artistic or for the family photo album, these visitors to our city are taking their view home and as we continue to rebuild and revitalise, more will come.