With international travel temporarily off the cards for the foreseeable future, New Zealanders have been embracing the opportunity to explore their own backyard. And when it comes to a world-class destination, the uniqueness of Fox Glacier/Te Moeka o Tuawe is proving a drawcard.
Fox Glacier Guiding is 100% Kiwi-owned by four New Zealand families, and while the business has enjoyed the highs of being a major international tourist destination, the effects of COVID-19 are bringing about drastic change.
Pre-COVID, 97% of the Fox Glacier Guiding market came from international tourism, with local visitors just a low percentage of the total audience. Almost 30,000 international visitors enjoyed Fox Glacier Guiding last year and so the complete halt of this audience is a major blow to the business.
To date, it’s managing to stay afloat but continued restrictions on overseas visitors present a major challenge. The New Zealand market is now the only hope of survival for the company and for the first time ever, a domestic marketing strategy has been developed and will be fine-tuned over the coming months.
“The Fox Glacier is a natural icon and popular, so it’s a challenging environment to introduce new products that are not glacier based,” says Fox Glacier Guiding CEO Rob Jewell.
“To target what is a relatively unknown local market, a saving of $100 has been introduced for the most popular product – the Flying Fox Helihike – in efforts to stimulate sales and interest for an initial period to see what happens.
“We’ve recently started a new venture called Experience Fox Glacier, offering horse trekking in the local area with the breathtaking backdrop of the Southern Alps.
“Guided e-bike tours to a glacier viewpoint are also in the planning stages as the company diversifies to meet changing markets.”
Fox Glacier was named after former New Zealand prime minister (from 1869-1872) Sir William Fox. Nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps, it’s 13km long and fed by four alpine glaciers. Making it something of an exception to ‘a usual’ glacier is the fact it descends from the Southern Alps down into temperate rainforest just 250 metres above sea level.
As with many glaciers around the world, there are obvious signs of retreat, but the attraction is still well worth exploring and one of the few glaciers in the world that can be so easily accessed – seen from the road, with walking and cycle tracks through the valley. The combination of climate and its funnel shape means that Fox Glacier moves at approximately 10 times the speed of other valley glaciers around the world. At its deepest, the glacier depth is around 350 metres.
And this is where the team at Fox Glacier Guiding come in, with experienced guides ensuring all of the requirements of operating in a World Heritage Area are met. Tour options include heli-hiking, ice climbing adventures (climbing the ice walls of the glacier), and overnight heli-treks.
Guiding on Fox Glacier originally kicked into action back in 1928, when the Fox Hotel began offering escorted trips. These continued until 1974, when passionate New Zealand mountaineer and guide Mike Browne took over and, with his Canadian wife Carrol, grew the business steadily for another 31 years.
Mike is also a founding member of the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association (NZMGA) and in 2017 Carrol received the Queen’s Service Medal for services to the community. Fifteen years ago, after growing the business as a couple, additional shareholders came on-board to help shape Alpine Guides Fox Glacier Ltd further into a professional business with more than 60 staff in peak season. However, the original family-feel remains a key driving force behind the business.
Ironically, while the business has enjoyed significant growth into the international tourism market, recent travel restrictions have seen it go almost gone full circle back to its origins as a domestic business.
“The company growth from 2007 to 2019 has been mostly in tune with the record international arrivals into New Zealand over these years,” says Rob.
“The booming Chinese market discovered Fox Glacier early on and it became extremely popular as one of New Zealand’s best natural icons. The company with its long history continues to remain 100% New Zealand-owned and operated by four New Zealand families and is looking forward to celebrating its 50 years in 2024.”
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Words by Lisa Potter