One of my first impressions of the West Coast came in a visit there in about 1988. I was going there for a holiday with my parents and brother. We were driving through Reefton or another town and I noticed half of the shops on the main street had been shuttered. The buildings looked dilapidated with for sale or lease signs up on many of them. In the several trips back since then I have often wondered what future it has other than the mining and forestry industries that were once upon a time the mainstay of the West Coast economy.
The West Coast has always been a province of extractive industry. In its heyday during the 1800’s gold rush, Okarito, a town now of only a few dozen, was a town of several thousand people. Today it is best known as a quaint cluster of holiday homes with few or no services – when I was there in 1999 to use the phone you went to a public one near the corner of the two streets; no television or internet coverage. The nearest shop was 20 minutes away in Franz Josef. Gold mine applications have either been opposed by environmental groups or have been declined by
The numerous localities that used to support forestry on the West Coast have largely gone silent after a change in support by the Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark led to mills that were processing native Rimu, Totara and Rata closed down. A proposal by the National led Government of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley to permit limited forestry until 2007 that was floated in 1999 would have saved hundreds of jobs, had National not lost the election.
More recently, there has been the coal mining industry. The thousands of tons of coal that have been hauled from West Coast mines, loaded onto trains and sent to Lyttelton for shipment to China have started to dry up as a result of the Chinese economy no longer being able to sustain its phenomenal growth. A mining disaster in 2010 caused by an explosion in the Pike River mine, which killed 29 people, growing concerns about the cost that developing fossil fuels will have on the climate and poor internal management at Solid Energy, have contributed to substantial job losses over the last several years. Most recently 113 job losses were announced on Thursday 07 May 2015.
It is not to say that there is nobody working on the coast or that it has no potential – for those tourists seeking out natural attractions, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, the numerous outstanding walks, and the Punkaiki blow holes amongst the famous pan cake rocks are very popular with tourist buses. It is the isolation, the splendour of the region that appeals to many. Niche tourism ventures based on the eco-tourism theme have sprung up. Scenic flights over the glaciers and tree top walks are just a couple. Much of the region is locked up in conservation land, an acknowledgement of the outstanding natural characteristics of the province.
For those with an interest in the history, the Coal Museum at Westport, the Shantytown historic village and the Brunner mine exhibits are all well worth a look. They point to industries that now appear to be in their twilight, but the history on display at these locations is well worth remembering.
However 20 years of failure by National and Labour led Governments to come up with alternative employment schemes to assist the West Coast has led to significant stagnation which continues to this day. Hard as it might be for people to admit, the extractive industries on which the West Coast economy were built, are probably still the key to its future, however brightly tourism sparkles.