The importance of business working co-operatively and supporting tourism on the South Island’s Wild and rugged West Coast has been highlighted by changes to Franz Josef Glacier and a new glacier experience.
For hundreds of years the West Coast glaciers have ebbed and flowed, and tourism operators have worked in with Mother Nature to ensure they continue to offer the experience of a lifetime to overseas visitors.
Last year major changes occurred on the Franz Josef Glacier when a depression developed more than 2km up the glacier, and in late January there was a partial collapse of that part of the ice.
Within weeks Franz Josef Glacier Guides introduced a new glacier tour called the Ice Explorer, where a short helicopter trip takes guests directly up onto pristine glacial ice.
“We were determined not to let changes to the glacier impact our operation, and the glacier certainly isn’t closed,” said Franz Josef Glacier Guides Operations Manager Craig Buckland.
“As a team we have to focus on sustainability and flexibility, adapting to and innovating alongside the changes that Mother Nature throws at us.
“We think we’ve done that extremely well with the new Ice Explorer, which has been getting rave reviews from visitors.
“Visitors on this trip now get a helicopter flight to access the glacier at the very best price we’re able to offer, because we’ve worked extremely hard to keep costs down.
“The helicopter ride is relatively short, but everyone gets an incredible view of the glacier and surrounding rainforest from the air, which is a very special experience.
“Rather than guests having to hike through moraine covered ice at the terminal face before they get to the cleaner ice above, they get dropped at a point where they experience the most spectacular ‘blue’ ice and crevasses that have developed over decades.
“From a safety perspective, it means our guides and visitors don’t hike at all in the vicinity of the thinning portion of the glacier, and also means they have time to explore more of nature’s wonders.”
In a show of confidence, the company has been given the full support of the local Department of Conservation office to run helicopter transfers onto the glacier.
“We have to remember that this is the main activity that people come to Franz Josef to participate in, to hike on a glacier and access the conservation estate,” said DOC Franz Josef Waiau Area Manager Wayne Costello.
“It’s important that we support them because the guided glacier trips are the mainstay of tourism on the West Coast. We have a really good working relationship with Franz Josef Glacier Guides and they’re one of our major partners in town.
“DOC is charged with looking after National Parks on behalf of New Zealand. But what Franz Josef Glacier Guides does is enable many thousands to access and enjoy the National Park. It’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship.
“Accessing the glacier is important as it puts substance into what we’re about. New Zealand is all about marketing itself as a tourism destination offering natural landscapes and scenic experiences.”
Just as importantly for the company, along with DOC it has the support of local tourism industry groups who understand the importance an operation the size of Franz Josef Glacier Guides has to the small isolated community.
“When guests come to us, many of them have come from around the world to see the iconic glacier. It’s important that these trips keep running,” said Marcel Fekkes, head of business development group Franz Inc.
“As a destination, we feel that Franz Josef Glacier Guides is important, because along with the glacier they’re a large drawcard for tourists coming here.”
Tourism West Coast Chief Executive Jim Little is also supporting the company.
“It’s great that people can just ‘pop’ up onto the glacier in an affordable manner,” he said.
“We want to send a clear message that it’s business as usual for tourism on the West Coast.”
Owned by Ngai Tahu Tourism, Franz Josef Glacier Guides is the second largest employer in Franz Josef, and is responsible for a large percentage of the permanent population in the community.
“We have worked with many of the people in Franz Josef for many years, so it was vital that we came up with a new product ensuring the sustainability of operations and continuing to bring overall benefit to the township when we knew the glacier was going to throw us a bit of a curve ball,” said Franz Josef Glacier Guides General Manager Fraser Leddie.
“The company sees the potential and long term viability of doing business on the West Coast.
“Three years ago we invested $8 million into the Glacier Hot Pools, a venture that’s proved to be hugely popular, with over 150,000 people visiting the pools since they opened.
“We plan to continue to invest further into Franz Josef, and even as the glacier continues to change, Franz Josef Glacier Guides remains committed to bring guests to the glacier to witness a unique act of nature.”
Full information on the Ice Explorer trip is available on http://www.franzjosefglacier.com/