Kiwi travel trade representatives took time out at the Oro Bay natural pool on the Isle of Pines a couple of days before they got down to business at the Rendez-vous in New Caledonia workshop in Noumea. Pictured from left: James Leslie, Air New Zealand; House of Travel’s Sharma Smith; Wendy Graham, Lifestyle Holidays; Claire Kaletka-Neil, New Caledonia Tourism; Ruzanne Keresoma, helloworld; New Caledonia Tourism’s New Zealand representative Sally Pepermans. Kiwi travel trade representatives took time out at the Oro Bay natural pool on the Isle of Pines a couple of days before they got down to business at the Rendez-vous in New Caledonia workshop in Noumea. Pictured from left: James Leslie, Air New Zealand; House of Travel’s Sharma Smith; Wendy Graham, Lifestyle Holidays; Claire Kaletka-Neil, New Caledonia Tourism; Ruzanne Keresoma, helloworld; New Caledonia Tourism’s New Zealand representative Sally Pepermans. ©S. Ducandas / DIL

Shock and ore for agents in New Caledonia

New Caledonia’s slumping nickel industry has forced the inhabitants to come together to mine an economic future in tourism – and now the movement is gaining ground. Lisa Bradley reports.

Attendees at this year’s Rendez-vous in New Caledonia were bussed past four smokeless chimneys of Noumea’s nickel smelter en route to the magnificent US$70 million Jean-Marie Tjiboau Culture Centre.

There seemed no better symbolic illustration that the economic crown of this French-speaking nation is firmly passing from the troubled mining industry to tourism.

Further proof the hearts and minds of New Caledonians have turned to its fledging inbound market came from the around 60 workshop exhibitors, many of whom were just as animated talking about the changing face of the country as they were selling their wares.

Tourism is the word on everybody’s lips. All say nickel is the story of New Caledonia’s past and niche tourism is its future. However, some think time is needed to gear the nation for an increase in visitors, while others are frustrated it isn’t happening fast enough. And nearly all see competition from its island peers and a misconception the destination is too pricey as stumbling blocks.

‘We are at the beginning and we’ve a long way to go. The focus has been on nickel and this has to change – tourism is the priority,’ says Nouvelle Calidonie Tourism’s executive general manager Julie Laronde.

There’s no denying the hopes for this sub-tropical destination are heady. It wants annual visitor numbers to grow from 114,000 to 200,000 by 2033. This doesn’t include cruisers, which the industry hopes will leap from 400,000 to a million each year in the same period. Kiwi travellers (who numbered 8500 last year) sit behind France, Japan and Australia but are being projected as playing a large part in market growth. 

Laronde says while some operators are ready to welcome international visitors, others have work to do. Accordingly, several exhibitors admit to be busily gearing up to net more tourists by creating websites in English, and a couple called for patience – and less lofty commission demands – as the country finds its feet.

‘We will exceed your expectations. We can talk pricing in time, but first comes a relationship of trust,’ says Sebastien Davignon from Nautilus Tours.

Meanwhile, Les Grands Hotels du Nouvell-Caledonie’s director Thierry Laporal asks the New Zealand trade to discover what is on offer as the country’s tourism players learn to move in the same direction.  

‘New Caledonia must unite as a people and realise tourism is good for all our futures. We have to present well – from English-speaking taxi drivers to gastronomy and sport – to build our image, because it is as yet unknown. But this is possible, it is possible, it is possible…’

Laronde says while the country is educating its people on the expectations of the international tourism market, attention must also turn to infrastructure.

Groupe AEC’s Yannick Pantaloni agrees, saying the country needs more top-end accommodation. The fifth generation New Caledonian (whose transport company Arc en Ciel Services has been operating for 35 years) says hotels will deliver the visitor numbers – and profits – nickel can no longer generate.

‘The day will most definitely come when all we have is tourism so we need to attract people, and the only way to do that is with new hotels. A stronger infrastructure makes for a stronger growth,’ Pantaloni says.

‘The Kanak people (indigenous Melanesian inhabitants) are new to this, but it’s a way to increase employment for them – a way to help the generations who follow.’

The early signs are leading hotel brands are willing to bank on New Caledonia’s tourism fervour. Work is expected to get under way next year on a 50-room Hilton property at Lifou Island to complement the chain’s popular four-star hotel in Noumea. This will bring the number of five-star accommodation options to four, after Le Meridien properties in Noumea and Isle of Pines, and Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort and Spa in Bourail. Noumea is also home to the four-star Kiwi favourite Chateau and Royal Resort.

Also listening to the nation’s tourism efforts are Air New Zealand and Aircalin, which are in talks with the tourism board to up the flights between the nations from five to one a day.

The feeling is increased accessibility will result in more travellers – and given many New Caledonians think Kiwis have no idea the country is just a two-and-a-half hour flight away, a hike in numbers can only help with awareness.

Tourism heads would like to share the focus – and wealth – with the entire country, not just Noumea.

In the Loyalty Islands, Lifou is presently being pitched for its white-sand beach stretching 24km; Mare for its wildness and less-visited Ouvea for being a secluded paradise on earth.

The more frequented of the islands, Isle of Pines – a 25-minute flight from Noumea – remains a top choice for many, and for good reason. No sooner are passengers delighting in the vivid patchwork blues of the island’s surrounding lagoons, they are landing among needle-like pines reaching high into the sky.  Once there, a splash in the almost airbrushed-looking waters of the Oro Bay natural pool will become a long-lasting memory for those who go the extra mile from Noumea. 

Meanwhile, Bourail (two hours drive from Noumea on the west coast) is leaning itself towards Kiwis – not least for its surfing and golfing facilities, but for the attraction of its New Zealand WWII cemetery.

Alongside pitching its landscape (and the fact New Caledonia is home to the largest lagoon in the world), the country would like to be known as a destination for fitness buffs. And there’s no denying sitting down to a French picnic watching the many runners, skateboarders and petanque players along the bustling Noumea promenade is an entertaining way to while away time.

But outdoor activities stretch to cycling and trekking in the large natural parks – Les Grandes Fougeres Sylvie Charmant on the northern end of the main island or ‘baguette’ and, to the south, the le Parc Provincial de la Rivieria Blue.

The north now also boasts 70km of walking tracks down its spine – this length is set to double, and eventually join with treks in the south.

Northern tour operators have been working with local tribes along the path for six years, pushing for a nature-loving reputation. And it’s an image they would like New Zealand trade to impress on their clients.

New Caledonia is also presently well frequented by cruise ships – around 300 a year. About 98% of those on board come from Australasia, and Laronde says the tourism board is discussing ways passengers can go from spending eight hours on their doorstep to days inside the country with return visits.

The family market is also an area the country ‘can do better,’ says Laronde, adding the Sheraton is the only hotel with a kids’ club.

But perhaps one of the biggest hurdles facing these sun-drenched islands is misconception, particularly when it comes to price.

During the tete-a-tetes with exhibitors, many expressed frustration the country is perceived as being a costly place to visit. In fact, they all say New Caledonia is on a cost-par with Auckland – and possibly cheaper when it comes to beer and cheese.

‘Ten years ago the exchange rate was terrible, but agents have to know the pricing is no longer ridiculous. It’s not the 30% difference it was in the past,’ says New Caledonia Tourism’s New Zealand representative Sally Pepermans.

The country also admits it has a chore turning Kiwi heads from the Pacific Islands they have been visiting for generations. It plans to do so by keeping up a promotional presence through roadshows, famils and social media.

‘Even if mining didn’t decrease, we will still need tourism to supply work to our smaller areas,’ says Laronde.

‘We haven’t the same budget as Fiji and others. But Kiwis have tried these islands and we think they should be ready for something new.’

Although Laronde admits New Caledonia cannot draw the same numbers as Fiji, she is positive it can become a force to be reckoned with.   

And, given the passion and refreshing openness of those attending the country’s second tourism workshop, it certainly has the drive to become a very viable option in the South Pacific tourism stable.