The $2.5m community-driven Curio Bay Natural Heritage Centre — construction of which is due to start next week — is positioning itself to be a "game changer" for southern tourism.
The centre, which received $500,000 in Government funding last week, is the last piece in the puzzle of a multi-tiered upgrade to prepare Curio Bay for tourism growth, with a new sewerage scheme, amenities block and car park having been completed over this summer season.
Venture Southland general manager for tourism, events and community Bobbi Brown said the centre would wear multiple hats for the region, such as helping tell the Catlins story and to educate newcomers on how to interact with the region's noteworthy wildlife and unique landscape.
But on a strategic level, it would serve as a hub that other tourism-related business could grow around.
The Catlins had been a region visitors drove through, but the centre was hoping to change that by giving tourists a reason to stay longer and spend more, Mrs Brown said.
"We hear a lot of people go, 'Oh if we had known how awesome it was, we would have stayed longer'. That's so frustrating. So now we're going to have a trade-commissionable product in a hub that we can actually leverage higher up to...advertise further up the trade chain."
"It's going to be a game changer facility."
Tourism growth in Milford Sound was parallel to the growth they were seeing along the Southern Scenic Route, with Venture Southland research showing a large percentage of campervans visiting the popular fiord were also driving the coastal highway, she said. In fact, almost half (47%) of campervans going to Milford Sound in 2015 reported having travelled on the Southern Scenic Route.
For Mrs Brown, the initiative stood out for being a grassroots, community-driven project that counted on the collaboration of multiple stakeholders such as iwi, the Department of Conservation (DOC), the Southland District Council (SDC) and the South Catlins Charitable Trust working together for the same goal.
"What I love most about this project is it's community up. The community have noticed the tourism happening and the opportunities and they said, 'We actually want to guide this. We want to be the ones that control and manage it'."
The announcement last week of half a million dollars in funding from the Tourism Growth Partnership (TGP) was the cherry on top of around 15 years of volunteer-driven work.
South Catlins Charitable Trust (SCCT) chairman Paul Duffy said the trust was absolutely thrilled by the announcement.
The project had formerly received significant contributions from the Lottery Environment and Heritage Fund ($500,898) and the Community Trust of Southland ($800,000).
Furthermore, different infrastructural projects in the area were funded through DOC ($850,000) and the Southland District Council (just under $1m).
"Every organisation has contributed hugely."
Not only did the recent $500,000 financially help the centre tell the Curio Bay story, it was also great to get that level of recognition from central government itself, Mr Duffy said.
Mr Duffy said there was a huge increase in day visitors to the region even from an anecdotal level. Just this week he said he visited the just finished DOC car park, noting 20-25 cars taking the 40 spaces available.
This season was indicative of a trend, as Mr Duffy said formal projections showed an increase in tourism in the upcoming years.
The $2.5m complex will house a heritage and visitor interpretation centre, café, a small theatre and ablutions block. Construction is due to begin on Monday (March 13).
Mrs Brown said the initiative showed that communities could lead their own development and shape the future they wanted.
"Tourism is an opportunity for everybody and it works really well when communities drive it and everyone else can get around it and be part of the whole picture."