Tourism Minister Stuart Nash rails against freedom campers, but can he meet the bold challenge of reinventing our tourism for a future of Covid and climate change? Photo: Getty Images

Comment: As the tourism minister talks tighter controls on tourists, there seem few who believe the Government will ever grasp the challenge of systemic change

The trickle of international tourists we can expect over coming months is very welcome for the tourism sector and for our economy and society more widely. But it presents two new challenges for the sector.

First, even a modest number of arrivals will stress depleted tourism businesses. Some of their most knowledgeable and experienced staff have left the sector permanently; company finances are strained; some costs will be higher, most likely of staff; capacity is sharply reduced in the likes of flights, rental cars and campervans; and demand is now heavily shaped by domestic tourists during four school holidays a year.

Second, the sector must keep up its work on reimagining tourism. It has to address the strains on people and places caused by the rapid growth in international tourists in the many years before Covid. From 1950 to 2019, the number of international tourists globally grew 56-fold to 1.5 billion people a year. In the past decade, tourism was the third fastest growing sector in the global economy, after IT and finance.

But in those decades our international arrivals in New Zealand grew 262-fold, five times faster than the global sector. In 2019, we hosted one overseas visitor for every 1.3 Kiwis.

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The strains this caused on our economy, society, environment and destinations has been well studied by the sector itself and by independent analysts, most notably Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in his reports in December 2020 and February 2021.

Pre-pandemic, the sector’s strategy was only to partially ameliorate the strains of continued growth, rather than to rethink its values and mission. This better-business-as-usual was the essence, for example of Tourism Industry Aotearoa’s report Tourism 2025 and Beyond: a sustainable growth framework.

But the sudden shock of Covid changed the perspectives of many in the sector. They scrambled to survive the border closure, then they began to realise it could take years for the sector to rebuild volume to its peak pre-pandemic level, if at all.

The government pumped money and programmes into the sector to help it with near-term survival; and many companies in the sector responded admirably. They decisively and creatively down-sized to cater to a much changed domestic market, while also acting with a strong sense of the future.

These were common themes among the best of companies and sectors, as I explored in a series of 16 in-depth interviews with chief executives across the economy during the first lockdown. Grant Webster of Tourism Holdings was the first person I interviewed. He had crystal-clear views on the way his company could respond positively to the pandemic. And this column after the first lockdown ended described the main lessons from all 16 interviews.

The government in May 2020 also appointed the Tourism Futures Taskforce to work on a new long-term strategy. This effort involved industry leaders and, crucially, an advisory panel of people from conservation, communities, iwi, unions and other stakeholders.

The taskforce delivered its interim report to government last December. But the government has only just released it. The report is brave, thoughtful and inspiring and is well worth reading.

Its starting points are three core attributes the industry had identified in its earlier “2025 and Beyond” report: Embracing tikanga Māori; Living tiaki (the promise as travellers to care for New Zealand); and Engaging the community. But the taskforce goes much further in the vision it offers the sector and the country:

“We are here to nurture this place, enriching generations with livelihoods, experiences and stories to share. We must own the impact of our actions and enable Aotearoa New Zealand to thrive by giving back more than we take.”

While this is very broad, as all such expressions of purpose are, the report lays out many goals and actions that would bring it alive. If the sector renewed itself along these lines it would solve many of its problems, contribute more to our economy, culture and society, and be truly distinctive globally.

However, the strategy would not deal with the biggest challenge of all – the prodigious carbon footprint of our long-haul travellers. There are ways to do this. For example, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment argues in his latest report for a departure tax broadly equivalent to the cost of carbon offsets, with all the revenue invested in major international projects to develop and produce sustainable aviation fuel.

Another way is to apply offset revenues to ecosystem restoration projects here in Aotearoa, and to make those part of people’s travels here, as I proposed in this column last December. It was my contribution to a collection of essays, 100% Pure Future: New Zealand Tourism Renewed, published as a BWB Text.

Having received the taskforce’s interim report in December, the government took four months to respond to it and release it publicly. When it did so two weeks ago, it offered vague support for the strategy but it disbanded the Taskforce, saying the report, which was clearly titled an interim one, had given the government all the information it needed.

That was a big surprise to the Taskforce, which was working on much more detail and analysis for a final report for later this year.

It’s hard to know where the government’s heading on tourism. Stuart Nash, its tourism minister, gave a lengthy speech last month at the Tourism Policy School organised by the University of Otago’s Department of Tourism and attended by industry leaders. (Disclosure: I was a panellist.)

Nash outlined his four principles to lead us off on the “transformation journey”:

  • We must make the necessary changes to ensure ‘Brand New Zealand’ is seen as one of the world’s most aspirational global travel destinations.
  • We have an opportunity to re-set and rebuild tourism on a sustainable model and the industry simply cannot return to ‘business as usual’.
  • The costs and negative impacts associated with tourism must be mitigated or priced into the visitor experience, and not funded by New Zealand rate and tax payers.
  • The Government intends to partner with the industry, both businesses and workers, and this is essential to achieve this transformation.

But those four were hardly a strong commitment to big, systemic change that many in tourism know their sector urgently needs and in achieving it, will thrive for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

Once again, the government has given a diffident response to a crucial challenge. Once again, it’s failing to seize the brilliant opportunities offered to it by people who live and breathe the issues.

There seem to be few people in tourism who believe the government will eventually respond boldly. So many of them have committed to carrying on the Taskforce’s work on the industry’s future, even as they are working flat-out to welcome back the first international visitors.

They are showing the way for all of us. If you are determined to be bold, get on and do it yourselves. Don’t hang around hoping this government will lead.

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