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Queenstown: The Aspen of New Zealand has an affordability problem

Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown: is the resort too expensive  for some residents to remain? Photo/Getty Images

Ryan Keen went for three months – but toughed it out for a decade.

I moved to Queenstown in 2004. It was going to be a three-month stint during a university break. Ten years later, I was still there.

The Aspen of New Zealand may be one of the hardest places to live in terms of making ends meet, but it’s also one of the hardest to leave.

You can’t help but fall in love with it: from the crisp alpine air at 310m above sea level and breathtaking landscapes to the energy of the 35,000-plus people who live there.

Once you’ve bought a snowboard and learnt how to carve a turn without catching an edge and face-planting, your immediate future is pretty much a certainty.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The cleanest lines I’ve ever left were the first tracks I got when I woke up to a foot of snow blanketing the town. I snowboarded from my Queenstown Hill bolthole to the front door of my office. How many people can say they’ve ridden a snowboard to work? If that’s not doing your bit for unclogging roads, I don’t what is.

My biggest regret? Not getting a toehold in a patch of dirt. I pulled the pin on negotiations to buy a three-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex with stunning views across Lake Wakatipu from a handy perch on Queenstown Hill (just above the bustling tourism centre) after the owner refused to drop what was, on reflection, a measly $5000. The place would have been mine for $530,000. That was early 2014.

I left town for a job on the Gold Coast, and when I visited Queenstown a year later, the real estate agent who had been trying to broker the deal told me that $5000 had cost me about $90,000 so far – that’s how much the property’s valuation had risen. I can’t bring myself to look at what the place is worth now, because house prices have been surging ever since and show no sign of abating.

Queenstown may be the jewel in New Zealand’s tourism crown, but it is also the least-affordable place to buy a property, even surpassing Auckland.

At the end of last year, the average price for a home in Queenstown hit $1 million. Good luck coming up with the deposit if you are slaving away on regular wages in the town’s service industry. It’s even a struggle for rank-and-file cops, teachers and nurses.

For insight into the burgeoning property sector, you need look no further than the latest edition of Mountain Scene. In what’s reported to be a market in the midst of a slowdown, property sales at the golf and lifestyle haven Millbrook Resort totalled $64 million in the year to September. That’s $20 million more than the previous record set two years ago. Recently, a section at sought-after Millbrook – overlooking the Coronet Nine’s fifth and sixth tees – sold for $2.38 million.

As for tourism, Statistics NZ’s latest data shows a 2.9% rise in the year to August to more than 3.5 million visitor bed nights. International guest nights soared 4.7% to almost 2.5 million for the year.

That’s an average of 10,000 people coming through a day – a good problem to have, but a serious load on infrastructure and the source of one of Queenstown’s main problems: its rates alone aren’t enough to pay for everything the place needs to cater to that increasing demand.

The situation has prompted Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult to ruminate on his desire for central Government to allow him to introduce some sort of bed tax or levy on visitors.

It used to be that at certain times of the year – such as New Year – central Queenstown could be prone to gridlock traffic. Now, it plagues the nation’s tourism capital, and one of the Southern Hemisphere’s fastest-growing towns, at certain times each day.

A visitor levy isn’t the only intervention Boult and the Queenstown Lakes District Council are keen on: they are also pursuing affordable housing and helping with supply.

It’s all about trying to keep pace with rampant growth. A new school will open soon and critical roadworks and extra bridge lanes on key arterial routes are being built. Meanwhile, central Government is being lobbied on the next critical infrastructure requirement.

It has always been a town with growing pains, but they are now more acute.

Several years ago, following a tour of Queenstown Airport’s latest multimillion-dollar expansion, the then Prime Minister John Key was asked what he thought. He quipped that he was wondering when the next one would start.

He had a point: it is the fastest-growing airport in Australasia.

Recently, Boult started his regular Mountain Scene column with, “I don’t know about you but I’m delighted! I had the great pleasure to fly back into Queenstown after a trip north recently, arriving here at peak rush-hour, facing the prospect of traffic congestion making me late for a meeting at the council.

“To the contrary, it took me maybe two or three minutes to get from the airport roundabout to the BP roundabout, with no congestion at all at the BP roundabout, and off into town with no time to spare.

“To say that the opening of Hawthorne Drive (aka the eastern access road) has been a success in reducing traffic congestion is an understatement.”

He wrote that the NZ Transport Agency notes the peak-hour average travelling time between those two roundabouts is now just three minutes, compared to a previous average of 10-20. For those who don’t know the geography, the distance between those two roundabouts is just a few hundred metres.

Peak-hour rush? Traffic congestion? These are terms more happily applied to Auckland, not Queenstown, an idyllic twin-season mountain resort.

If only it snowed to ground level a bit more often, then everyone could just snowboard to work.

The issue for Queenstown now is not whether tourism will continue to grow to sustain its population, but whether some of its existing population can afford to stay to service the town and its visitors.

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.