Covid 19 coronavirus: Curtains down for longest running retail business at Victoria Park Market

The longest surviving retail business at Auckland’s Victoria Park Market, Urim, a souvenir shop selling New Zealand souvenir and gifts, will be closing its doors for the last time on April 8.

Owner Grace Ko remembers a time when her business was thriving with tourists buying everything from greenstone to keychains and bone carvings, but says with the prolonged border closures she has lost any hope of foreign visitors returning any time soon.

The number of foreign tourists had fallen from more than a million in 2019 to nearly zero since borders were closed by Covid-19 in March last year, forcing many businesses to reduce their services or close entirely.

Now in her 60s, Ko says it is time to call it a day, and is clearing her stock – selling items at drastically reduced prices, and some even going for free.

StatsNZ figures released last week showed there were more than 1000 fewer businesses in January than there were a year ago. It is in the process of collating business entries and exits data, and it is expected to show Auckland and tourism towns had born the brunt of the downturn.

Simon Cheung, chairman of the NZ Chinese Travel and Tourism Association, said that just a small percentage of the association’s 200 member businesses were still active in the tourism industry.

“Domestic tourism has managed to keep some of these businesses afloat, but this is not a solution for souvenir shops because domestic tourists would not buy New Zealand souvenirs,” Cheung said.

“Most of the souvenir businesses from Queen St to Queenstown have not been able to survive the impact of the pandemic. It is very sad.”

Cheung, who runs luxury vehicle hire business VIP Hire and Shuttle, says he remains hopeful that with the vaccine roll-out borders could reopen by the end of the year.

“Tourist operators have been through a very bleak and painful period because of the pandemic, but I think we are reaching the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

In the 1990s, when Ko first started her business, Victoria Park Market was booming with tourists and local visitors alike.

On weekends, it had a “festival style” market with offerings of T-shirt, sarongs, incense and cheap street food stalls cooked by mainly Asian food sellers.

But its popularity fell as competing markets opened across the city, forcing its weekend market to close in 2011.

A three-year $20 million revamp was completed in 2014 to add shops, restaurants and offices inside the red brick heritage buildings – but an attempt to bring back the weekend markets failed.

Ko said she missed the “glory days” and will be sad leaving Victoria Park Market. On some days now, her business goes through the day without a single sale.

“I have been hoping for borders to open for a long time, but it doesn’t look like tourists will be allowed back any time soon. Without foreign tourists, I have no business,” Ko said.

“There are many happy memories for me here, and after so many years of course I will miss this place. But I think the time is right for me to go.”

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