It’s hard to decide what the worst thing is about new Tourism Minister Stuart Nash’s bumptious proclamations this week. He told a tourism conference he wants the industry to refocus its efforts on the wealthiest tourists. Then he told RNZ he wants to jolly this along by banning “tourist” vans – the sort that might be hired by backpackers – that don’t have their own toilets.
The van ban seemed like a sudden rush of blood to the head: it was a live morning interview and perhaps he had not had breakfast. Or time to reflect how hard it might be to ban a vehicle commonly used for perfectly innocent reasons. Or that those inclined to mischief will do it anyway, whatever they’re driving.
But the industry speech was written down and, therefore, presumably reflected some element of thought.
So what are we supposed to think? The minister knows nothing about the industry. That’s bad. Knowing nothing, he still thought it would be good to share. That’s worse.
And was there something else lurking in his disgust at tourists going to the toilet in our roadside scrub – sorry, pristine pure virgin bush? Some kind of let’s-all-hate-on-the-dirty-foreigners vibe? Some kind of idea it’s okay to think like that?
The minister will be familiar with the fundamentals of human anatomy: it’s not just foreign visitors who go to the toilet, New Zealanders do it too. Sometimes, on the side of the road. And when you stumble across a nappy in the bushes at a rest area, it’s a fair bet a local left it there.
When he gets round to reading his briefing papers, perhaps he will find they make a few useful observations.
Such as: backpackers are valuable tourists. They tend to stay for some time, and over that time their spend in the local economy adds up. Less than other tourists, perhaps, but still a handy half-billon dollars, pre-Covid.
Often they work here, in restaurants and bars and orchards, doing work that employers can’t find locals prepared to do. When they work, they pay tax.
And they come back. Today’s young backpacker, staying in a hostel, working in a bar and eating junk food, having the adventure of a lifetime, is tomorrow’s older tourist, staying in a hotel, eating at good restaurants and hoping to rekindle some smidgeon of that same adventure. With more creature comforts, obviously, which they pay well for.
Every business owner will tell you the most valuable customer is the repeat customer. Tourism is a long-term, intergenerational proposition. Nash’s idea that we should focus on the wealthiest few, those looking to cross another country off their bucket list, is unhelpful.
It’s not that the tourists who want to go heli-skiing and stay in $1500-a-night luxury lodges should be discouraged. They have their place in the tourism ecosystem, especially if they do their bit for the real ecosystem. Haere mai to them and their money. But why try to exclude the others?
New Zealand tourism needs a mass customer base. It’s not a niche service, it’s an enormous industry, as big, until Covid, as dairy.
Think of Waiheke. In season, on any given day, you could fit all of Nash’s preferred tourists into a helicopter or two and deposit them at a single restaurant. Great for the chopper company and that restaurant, but what’s the rest of the island meant to do?
We all benefit from there being so many good places to eat in this country, at all price points, but as Covid has brutally revealed, many of them really struggle to survive on local custom alone.
To be fair, Nash is not alone. Some in the tourist industry have always called for us to forget the low-value tourists and concentrate on the top end. Invariably, they speak for the luxury lodges and their ilk. They do not speak for the shops in every town that ordinary tourists visit.
And there are many complaints about freedom campers who seem to care little about the environment. Fair enough, it’s a real issue.
But the solution isn’t to hope for a day when there’s no freedom camping. We need a nationwide plan to address this, because it’s too hard for many councils, and part of the solution, at taxpayer cost, is more public toilets. That’s not hard to grasp.
The country is currently spending $1.1 billion on Covid-recovery Jobs for Nature projects, mainly in provincial areas. A mix of planting, restoration of waterways, scrub clearing, maintenance, rubbish removal: beautifying and rejuvenating the countryside.
Let’s have even more. The programme has so many environmental and employment benefits. Why not pay people to keep the countryside clean, the way we do to keep the cities clean?
There’s something else about the minister’s dream. It’s a modern version of old-fashioned servitude. Our problems will be over if we can just find some rich people to sprinkle their munifence on us. But that’s not a thing. It never has been.
We have some real problems in tourism. Too many jobs are low-paid. Too many people clog the Great Walks. Some tourists, at all levels of wealth, abuse the hospitality. And yes, we do have some low-value tourists. Or did, until Covid.
But they’re not the people Nash thinks they are. Visitors from Australia, for example, often expats, who stay with family and friends and spend their time at the beach: they’re low value. But, really, does it matter?
The biggest problem, now, is obvious: there are no tourists. Not from overseas, at any rate.
Which points to the stupidest thing of all about what Nash said: he wasted his chance to help a desperately struggling industry.
What are we going to do about the lack of overseas tourists? There won’t be a travel bubble with Australia any time soon and a bubble with island nations won’t help tourism here much, although it does seem the least we could do for them.
In time, there will probably be bubbles with Asian countries, especially Taiwan, South Korea and China. But not this summer.
And tourists will not be arriving from America or Europe in the foreseeable, however rich they are. It’s a terrible, terrible thing, but there is no discernible end to the Covid crisis in much of the Northern Hemisphere.
On the other hand, we do have five million people planning their summer holidays right now. In this country.
Most of us will not spend like retired Texans quick to pull out their fat wallets. But we will spend. Tourism could actually have a summer boom. If it gets the pricing right, the attractions right, the marketing right.
Why didn’t the minister concentrate on that? The survival of a vital industry is at stake, and it can be done.
Want to see how good it can be? Check out the latest video from Ateed, soon to become Auckland Council’s promotional agency Auckland Unlimited.
It’s a video aimed at quality tourists, which isn’t a function of their money, but of their openness to quality stuff. As the narration says, “I’m going to keep supporting local, and I’m going to say yes to every experience.”
Pay a lot in a top restaurant; go to the beach for nothing: both are celebrated. It’s aimed at locals and other New Zealanders, at everyone who will treasure what’s on offer and tell everyone else about it.
Because that, minister, is a good way to think about tourism.
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