If we want tourism to recover, we cannot afford to be fussy

Speaking at the New Zealand Tourism Export Council’s annual conference in Nelson on Wednesday, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash was at it again, perhaps grabbing more international headlines than here in New Zealand, with his vision of New Zealand as one of the three top desired destinations for “the world’s most discerning travelers”.

In other words, New Zealand is going to market itself to what Nash calls “high-end” big spenders – or, as Nash put it in 2020, wealthy tourists who “fly business class or premium economy, hire a helicopter, take tours around France- Joseph and then eats in an elite restaurant.”

I have no problem with wealthy people traveling to New Zealand to enjoy our beautiful country. We have great luxury accommodation and affordable experiences, and like all other parts of the tourism industry, they deserve to thrive.

However, I do not believe that this is the answer to reviving our international tourism industry; an industry that directly or indirectly generated approximately 9.3 percent of GDP before COVID.

We all want a more environmentally conscious and sustainable industry that protects our country from the degradation and overpopulation of our wildlife, pressure on infrastructure and human waste on the roadsides.

But do we have to be exclusive and snobbish to get it?

The idea that “high-end” tourists contribute more to New Zealand’s economy than budget travelers is not necessarily supported by research.

Professor James Higham, professor of tourism at the University of Otago, told The Guardian: “The trend in recent decades around the world is for tourists to travel further, travel faster, produce more CO2, stay shorter and spend less at their destination.”

The result, he said, was often “very wealthy people destroying the planet without contributing in the way we might have expected or hoped.”

By comparison, budget travelers tend to stay longer. They may not spend the same amount every day, but their cumulative spending over a longer period of time means that their contribution is also significant.

Youth tourism, as tourists are classified, provides 25 percent of international tourism revenue, which before the pandemic was about $1 billion a year.

If we want our tourism industry to recover, we really can’t afford to fuss now about who we host.

But if we are to transform the tourism industry, Stuart Nash needs to move away from elitist headline-grabbing commentary and focus more on both the short-term issues facing the industry – where to find staff and housing for them – and the long-term issues of how to create a sustainable, regenerative, high-paying industry.

There’s something else that doesn’t sit right with me when it comes to eating tourist noodles in two minutes. Like many Kiwis who aspire to fly out into the big world, I’ve also traveled the world on a shoestring budget and eaten a lot of noodles.

For my OE, I traveled overland from Hong Kong to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Express. It was a trip full of extraordinary experiences. It gave me a better understanding of myself and the world, and led to lifelong friendships that are perhaps my greatest asset today.

Some of these destinations I also returned with a little more money in my pocket, while others I still intend to visit again. And I can’t wait for my kids to go abroad and have the same experience I did.

So it seems unseemly to deny overseas visitors the experiences we’ve had here in their own countries.

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