Big strides are being taken to turn the Waikato River into the centre of tourists' attention.
The second stage of Hamilton's $4.9 million Victoria on the River development begins in April, funds have been committed to river facilities and momentum is building across the sector.
The Waikato River is labelled a game changer for the industry, but it has sat unappreciated in the city's background for too long, says Hamilton City Councillor Geoff Taylor.
If it's going to become the focal point of tourism - a goal set out by Hamilton and Waikato Tourism in a 2016 report and the Hamilton City River Plan - it needs investment, he said.
"If you go to any city, you tend to gravitate towards the water and it's a nonsense that we don't use the river's potential, we don't appreciate the river's beauty the way we should and it's a nonsense that, for the last 20 years, politicians have put up obstacles so that we haven't been able to achieve that vision," Taylor said.
Last year, the philanthropic Donny Trust committed $1 million to the city's river plan.
He won a motion from the floor, 9 votes to 4, which shifts $250,000 from the operational budget to capital expenditure and adds $1m to match the Donny Trust pledge.
"Donny Trust had put up $1 million through Momentum Foundation and I felt we were just not responding the way we should to a gesture like that," he said.
The Victoria on the River development, part of council's Central City Transformation Plan, is an exciting project for the city, said Hamilton Mayor Andrew King and also a game changer in the regional plan.
Cultural tourism is key to tourism, too, and with the river provides a unique offering, said Tainui Waka Tourism Inc secretariat officer Craig Muntz.
"The industry acknowledges there is a need for new product to anchor visitation in the region," Muntz said. "The river provides the point of difference as our iconic geological feature that runs through the heart of the region."
Muntz is developing the Waikato River Festival, which kicked off at the source of the Waikato River at the Tongariro National Park. The festival will recognise the 425-kilometre river system as a single body of water and aims to develop more attractions along the river.
Several independent events are attached to the festival, which runs in the month of March. They include the Haka Maori Arts and Cultural event at Hamilton Gardens, the Tupuna Awa exhibition by renowned Waikato artist Fred Graham during Maadi Cup week at Karapiro Domain, and the promotion of significant cultural sites on the river.
"The vision is that between the source and the sea, we will develop a wide range of activities that reflect different stakeholder groups in the river, be that environmental, educational, cultural, recreational, or economic and share our stories with the world."
Waikato is the fifth-largest tourism region in the country by value at $1.39 billion in revenue and it's underutilised, said Hamilton and Waikato Tourism chief executive Jason Dawson.
"There is lots of physical activity on the river, but when we talk product in tourism, we talk about commissionable product - things that we can actually book, pay for and experience and get some value out of it," Dawson said.
Council is providing a kickstart to funding, but Dawson said a community-based, mixed-funding model is the most effective way to get operations started.
"If we had more product around the river, obviously more hotel accommodation, which the city is looking closely at, then that could potentially try to increase the yield of tourism even more in Hamilton and the wider Waikato."
Waikato River Explorer managing director and skipper Darren Mills said the potential of the river is huge. But with 6000 tourists waiting to come through the city each day to tour the river, "potential" might also be the biggest problem.
"We've got a number of major inbound tourism operators waiting for the right facilities to be put in. We have a boat on the drawing board that's ready to go as soon as council puts the right facilities in, because at the moment, the facilities there can't support two boats," Mills said.
An upgrade of jetty facilities at the Hamilton Gardens and a new jetty in the CBD are desperately needed and the city's financial commitment is "brilliant", he said.
"There is plenty of room for other operators and so many people bemoan the fact the river is underutilised and the main reason for that is it's not easy to set up what we have set up."
Image source: ELTON RIKIHANA SMALLMAN/FAIRFAX NZ