Two years after quake disaster, scarred city is on road to recovery

A CITY that still bears the all too visible scars - two years on, on Friday - of a disastrous earthquake that claimed 185 lives may not instantly present itself as the most obvious dream holiday destination. But, for the increasing number of Australians returning to Christchurch for a visit, there is at least no problem posed in finding a parking spot for the rental car.

Since the earthquake of February 22, 2011, 1400 buildings have been fully or partially demolished, leaving behind ubiquitous and expansive vacant lots.

They have provided a noticeable and temporary boom for opportunistic car park operators in Christchurch's devastated central business district, where locals and visitors have been drifting back.

But, now that work has intensified on the $NZ30 billion ($24.4 billion) reconstruction of the city and the Canterbury region, one by one those makeshift open-air car parks will gradually disappear, with such facilities being incorporated into new quake-proofed buildings.

This year represents the first "big year of pouring concrete" as the city shifts from a demolition phase to one of construction. Already there is $NZ602 million worth of building work, funded largely by insurance payouts, under way.

A workforce of 5000 to 10,000, consisting of New Zealand labour and workers drawn from economically depressed Britain and Ireland, has already been assembled, the numbers expected to grow to as many as 30,000 at the height of the rebuild, posing a potential accommodation challenge.

The chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, Roger Sutton, isn't ruling out the need for a "tent city" to be built for the works, though thousands of residents of the city have chosen to leave. And the rebuild will not be quick, taking as long as 15 to 20 years to fully complete.

Mr Sutton predicts that a greener, more people-friendly city with a more compact central business district, focused on the Avon River, will emerge from the reconstruction.

"What we're hoping is to build the best little city in the world, where people will want to come, work and play. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to recreate the city," he said.

"Everything still works. We've had a bloody big event here but the hotels are reopening, there are new bars and restaurants and the airport is unaffected."

The tourism dependent city of about 500,000 has had a nearly 2.5 per cent increase in visitors from Australia for the four months to December, compared with the corresponding period the year before, despite a 25 per cent reduction in airline capacity. There are more than 4500 hotel rooms across the city, nearly 60 per cent of the pre-quake capacity, with another 610 to be added this year, according to Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.

Christchurch will gain a much-needed tourist attraction when the Japanese-designed Cardboard Cathedral - an innovative temporary replacement for the 19th century Christchurch Cathedral - opens in April. The popular gondola in the Port Hills is expected to reopen in May while work on the new Avon River Park Precinct is expected to begin in June. At that rate, Christchurch could end up with a parking problem.

The writer visited Christchurch as a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism and Air New Zealand.