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Hutchins, Leslie

1924–2003

Tourism entrepreneur

This biography, written by Margaret McClure, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.

Leslie Hutchins pioneered tourism in Fiordland in the 1950s, before the full potential of New Zealand’s tourist industry was recognised. His venture grew into one of New Zealand’s largest tourist enterprises. ‘Fiordland was always in my blood’,1 said Hutchins, and his love for this remote region prompted him to take a leading role in the Save Manapōuri campaign, one of New Zealand’s greatest environmental battles. He was a visionary who faced improbable odds with a tenacious spirit. 

Early life

Leslie Hutchins was born in Invercargill on 8 December 1924, the only son of Frank Hutchins, a retired railway engine driver, and his wife, Margery Scobie. Les had seven half-brothers and sisters from his parents’ earlier marriages. He began his working life at 12 while a student at Southland Technical College, working the 3 a.m. shift at the Southland Times, and making delivery runs for local businesses in his holidays. At 15, he left school to help in a half-brother’s furniture shop in Palmerston North. Homesick, he returned to Invercargill before being called up for active service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1943. Pilot training took him to Canada until his recall to New Zealand in January 1945 without having seen combat.

Back in Invercargill, Les worked briefly on the wharves, then turned to restoring second-hand furniture in his parents’ backyard. This led to him establishing Hutchins’ Furniture Warehouse and supplying goods around Southland. On 6 October 1948, in Invercargill, he married Olive Doreen Simpson, who would become a strong partner in his business and conservation projects. The couple had five children.

Pioneering tourism

Hutchins’ furniture business provided a financial base to support his sense of adventure and the ‘hare-brained’ schemes that followed.2 He and a friend briefly operated an aerial topdressing firm, and Les subsequently bought the assets of a small tourism firm based in Manapōuri and operating in Fiordland National Park. In 1954, he and Olive founded the Manapōuri–Doubtful Sound Tourist Company, which transported tourists by launch across Lake Manapōuri to the start of an abandoned walking track over the Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. With a resourceful team he started from scratch, overhauling the launches, clearing the track and building a new lodge in Deep Cove.

The beauty of Fiordland drew hardy trampers to the company’s tours, but the obstacles to financial success were enormous. Few international visitors reached New Zealand in the 1950s, and it was risky to invest in tourist ventures when the lease on the lodge site had to be renewed annually. Fiordland weather was unpredictable, conditions were primitive, their old boats were unreliable (several sank), and Hutchins had no nautical experience. The company was hit by tragedy when two of its employees drowned. A Marine Department inspector warned him, ‘Aye, lad, you’ll make naught out of boats.’3

Despite his struggles, Hutchins risked a new venture on Lake Manapōuri to service a hydroelectric project at West Arm, the largest such power station in New Zealand. He had already built a new home in Manapōuri township, set up a house church, bought out another tour company, and built slipways and jetties. Deciding to focus on shipping, he risked borrowing £50,000 to build a fast, purpose-built boat capable of carrying 80 passengers.

After the large, 500-hp Fiordlander I was launched in 1963, Hutchins won contracts with Utah Mining and Construction Company and a local consortium to transport workers and supplies across Manapōuri to West Arm. His company was soon working 24 hours a day, deploying a fleet of five vessels the size of the Fiordlander, along with Ministry of Works tugboats, towing huge barges of heavy equipment. Between 1963 and 1969 the company carried hundreds of thousands of curious tourists along with construction workers. Hutchins’ fortunes had been reversed.

Battling for Manapōuri

While exploiting new opportunities at Manapōuri, Hutchins was outraged by the government’s plans to dramatically raise and lower the water levels of Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau to maximise the electricity that could be produced. He foresaw islands submerged, and forests and beaches swamped by mud. His fears were confirmed when he heard noted zoologist and conservationist John Salmon predicting disaster.

In the face of government indifference to the lakes’ National Park status, Hutchins took up the battle in his own region. For a decade he argued the case for preserving the lakes’ natural water levels, ‘a voice in the wilderness’ among southerners anticipating the wealth that the power station and associated aluminium smelter would provide.4 Then in 1969, as president of the Southland branch of the National Tourist Association, he instigated a public meeting in the Invercargill Wool Exchange to debate Manapōuri’s future. That night the inspired chairmanship of conservationist Ron McLean turned the tide, and the southerners converted the regional Save Manapōuri campaign into a national crusade.

Hutchins popularised the arguments of scientists and conservationists with a brilliant publicity campaign, offering officials, MPs and journalists free tours to display the splendour of Manapōuri and the destruction that had been wrought when nearby Lake Monowai’s levels were raised in 1925. At South Arm on Manapōuri he exposed the futility of engineers’ attempts to conceal experiments in manipulating the level of the lake. The novelty of the tours – including jet boat trips and flights – caught the attention of national media, and became a vital component of victory. The climax came when opposition leader Norman Kirk’s 1972 visit was televised, and his pledge to retain the natural lake levels contributed to Labour’s convincing election win that year.

The following year Hutchins was one of the ‘cream of the rebels’ selected by Prime Minister Kirk when he created six Guardians of the Lakes to protect Manapōuri and Te Anau in the future. Hutchins was to hold the role for 26 years.5

Heady times

The revolution in international jet travel brought soaring numbers of overseas tourists to New Zealand and new opportunities for Hutchins. In 1966 his company bought out Fiordland Travel, adopted its name, and gained access to Te Anau’s glow-worm caves and the Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) contract to transport tourists to the start of the Milford Track. The company re-established short tours from Manapōuri to Doubtful Sound, with a visit en route to the other-worldly cavern of Manapōuri power station.

Other shipping experiments followed. In 1969 Hutchins gained a foothold in the Queenstown tourist market when, encouraged by the government, he bought the TSS Earnslaw, a 51.2-metre steamship which had hosted tourists and carried freight on Lake Wakatipu since 1912.

Milford was next. Well aware that tourism operators were frustrated with the government’s monopoly, Hutchins boldly moved to compete with the THC’s boat trips on Milford Sound. When the Tourist Department unexpectedly withdrew its offer to sell him its launch service, and the Fiordland National Park Board refused him a leasehold on the foreshore, Hutchins discovered that the board owned neither the water nor the road. On the night of Boxing Day 1970 – when everyone was in the bar – Fiordland Travel smuggled a launch and pontoon jetty into Milford Sound, and began tours the following morning. With superior boats, an expanding fleet, and flightseeing from Queenstown from 1987, the company’s tourist numbers swelled.

Committed to conservation

Hutchins’ continued involvement in conservation paralleled the expansion of Fiordland Travel. He was appointed a founding member of the National Parks and Reserves Authority in 1981 and played the same role in its successor, the New Zealand Conservation Authority. Over the next 12 years the stimulus of examining legal cases and inspecting sites around New Zealand moderated his antipathy towards officialdom and strengthened his conviction that conservation was ‘the real cornerstone’ of New Zealand’s tourist industry.6

In 1994 Hutchins established the Leslie Hutchins Foundation for Conservation, sustained by levies on passenger bookings. In keeping with a shift in conservation ideals towards the protection of ecosystems, rather than pristine landscapes, Fiordland Travel engaged in joint projects with the Department of Conservation to rid Fiordland of predators and encourage the return of endangered native birds. 

Later life

In 1978, worn down by the huge growth of his business, Les promoted his oldest son Bryan to general manager; Bryan later became CEO and drove the company’s expansion. The company was renamed Real Journeys in 2002 and RealNZ in 2021. Les bought an ocean-going keeler, and over the following years took tourism VIPs around Dusky Sound, circumnavigated New Zealand three times, and ventured twice to islands in the Pacific. He moved to the Bay of Islands, then returned south to Alexandra, before settling in Queenstown in the early 1990s.

Hutchins was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 1998 and a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to conservation and tourism in 2002. He died on 19 December 2003 at his Queenstown home, aged 79, survived by Olive and their children. He was posthumously inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in 2011, and his influence is reflected in RealNZ’s ongoing adventurousness and its commitment to conservation.

Footnotes:
  1. L. Hutchins. Making waves. Queenstown, 1998, p. 9. Back
  2. Ibid, p. 24 and passim. Back
  3. Ibid, p. 65. Back
  4. Ibid, p. 126. Back
  5. Alan Mark, cited in D. Young, Our islands, our selves: a history of conservation in New Zealand. Dunedin, 2004, p. 174. Back
  6. Hutchins. p. 198. Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret McClure. 'Hutchins, Leslie', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6h14/hutchins-leslie (accessed 19 August 2022)