By Jeff Neems, DOC Media and Communications Advisor.
We checked in with the staff from Tourism Holdings Limited, to find out how important the Government’s Jobs for Nature programme has been in keeping them in their district and community.
When New Zealand closed its international border in March 2020, the Tourism Holdings Limited (thl) team in Waitomo quickly felt the proverbial door shut.
The emergence of COVID-19 in New Zealand’s communities – via people coming into the country through airports – meant tourism would be hard hit as foreign travellers were excluded from entering. Working in an industry heavily reliant on international visitors, the members of the Waitomo thl team were anxious.
Moera Anderson, an experienced thl Waitomo Glowworm Caves guide, remembers the weeks after the Prime Minister’s border closure announcement being “a worrying time” for thl’s Waitomo division management and front-line staff.
Becs Munsch-Grafton, a Blackwater Rafting guide, shares the sentiment: “When the borders closed, there was a lot of worry for all the guides in Waitomo.”
Would they still have jobs? Would they be able to pay all their bills? Could they stay in the community they grew up in, or had grown to love? Or would the economic repercussions of the global pandemic force them to look elsewhere for work, and shift out of Waitomo?
Matt Atkins was anxious too. Another of thl’s Blackwater Rafting guides, he had just gotten married.
“I came back from my honeymoon, realised I might not have a job, and my wife Lauren and I had just purchased a house,” he remembers.
“So yeah, we were concerned about how we would pay the mortgage and make it work. At one point there I considered a dairy farming job, because I’d done a bit of that in the past – but it would’ve meant moving over to Paeroa, or something like that.”
As the Government ramped up its economic response to COVID-19, it unveiled its Jobs for Nature funding package. Among the five different government agencies involved, the Department of Conservation was tasked with distributing $488 million to support regional communities through nature-based employment opportunities.
Wary of the need to keep their people in employment and ease concerns, thl’s management team moved quickly, applying for Jobs for Nature funding to redeploy its Waitomo staff into core conservation work in a small and tight-knit community where most people have connections of some kind to one another.
“We wanted to support our people, and make sure they had certainty and security,” says Tim Loxton, thl’s Group General Manager Tourism Business.
“When the Jobs for Nature announcement was made, we pretty quickly identified the programme as a way we could help the Waitomo team and give back to the environment and whenua our business there is built on,” he says.
“It was very important for our local staff, and that made it important to us.”
By February 2021, thl – identified as a key employer in the village – had successfully applied for Jobs for Nature funding to support its workforce. An initial injection of $500,000 protected 10 thl jobs in Waitomo. A further $650,000 in Jobs for Nature funding for thl’s Waitomo operation was confirmed late last year – retaining the team in the conservation roles they’d become familiar with, and keeping 28 thl staff in the district.
“Through Jobs for Nature, we’re able to continue full-time work within our region, here in Waitomo. I’m now a team leader, looking after our crew and our staff while we’re not down in the caves,” says Moera, offering an on-the-ground perspective of the sigificance of the Government’s Jobs for Nature support.
He says the Jobs for Nature work the thl staff are involved in has a lot of meaning and importance for the team.
“We’re also able to assist with the safekeeping – the kaitiakitanga – of our land, our birds, our waterways, and our animals…. and ourselves, as well.
“A lot of our whānau whakapapa here – and so us being here, well, this is our home. It’s fortunate we’re able to still be here, in this situation. It’s created a great opportunity for us to stay home, stay here, and do what we love doing – be it cave guiding, or looking after our whenua. We’re very blessed.”
Becs says the diversity of the conservation work has made it rewarding and interesting for the thl team.
“I actually love the variety of jobs we can do now – we can do some guiding, some trapping, some weed control. Everyday looks a little bit different!” she says.
“A lot of us have always had a great love for the outdoors, so it’s given us more opportunities to do what we love.”
The Jobs for Nature work has brought the two thl teams together and enhanced relationships, says Becs.
“We have been doing so well, with all the conservation jobs we’ve been doing. We’ve seen a decline in possums and rats, and that’s a very visual representation of what we’ve done.”
Matt grew up in an outdoors family, with some bushcraft and conservation skills developed earlier in life – so he had a bit of a head-start on what Jobs for Nature work would require.
“A lot of this stuff wasn’t new to me – using weedeaters, lawnmowers, the maintenance of the gear, trap setting. It seemed like a perfect fit for me, really.”
He agrees it’s helped build connections within the wider thl team: “Getting to know the rest of thl crew better has been an awesome opportunity.”
Moera says the work conseration directed by DOC’s Maniapoto District team has given the thl crew an insight and experience in another connected sector.
“Hats off to DOC. We have a great appreciation of their worth, and their work – especially when it comes to looking after what’s important to us.
“We want to thank them for letting us be a part of their world, as well.”
The Jobs for Nature programme helps revitalise communities through nature-based employment.