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Pandemic – a chance to re-set NZ tourism

April 18, 2020

One part of the silver lining on the dark cloud of Covid19 may well be the promised review of tourism.  

Last week Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis launched a project in which Government and industry leaders will work together on a plan to restart tourism. They should not forget that we have been priced out of, and crowded out of, our favourite outdoor places for far too long by tourists while the industry ignored pleas to slow down and reduce the harm. Instead, with single minded determination, the industry went courting ever greater numbers each year with the misleading Clean Green propaganda message.      

We have watched with frustration and sometimes horror as increasing hordes of tourists trampled over delicate ecosystems, defecated on walking tracks, overloaded local infrastructure and pushed prices in some centres beyond the reach of locals. 

There has also been anger at the loss of what is supposed to be legally free access to public resources such as trout fishing and game bird hunting in favour of fee-paying tourists. Guides and some land-owners exploited loop holes in the law in a process known as exclusive capture which allowed them to use these public resources for private profit while excluding the public.

Tragically we have also had tourists cause fatal accidents by driving on the wrong side of the road. They have died on, or had to be rescued from, our mountains at great cost and risk, and even died in an erupting volcano. It should also not be forgotten that at least one of the Covid19 clusters we are currently dealing with seems to have originated with the passengers from a tourist cruise ship who should not have been allowed to come ashore without going into isolation.    

Tourism New Zealand chief executive Stephen England-Hall said the impact of Covid19 on the industry was an opportunity to address “some of the concerns about the pressures tourism had placed on some communities”. They have known about and ignored those pressures for a long time. He is also quoted as saying, “We have been given a scenario where we can not only incrementally but drastically shift the needle in a way we would not normally be able to do”. Industry leaders have always been able to do that, they just didn’t want to. They ignored genuine public concerns about too many tourists simply because they were able and encouraged to by previous governments. Now the door has been shut to foreign visitors for the foreseeable future the industry cynically wants New Zealanders, who have long been robbed of their birth-right heritage, to fill the gap as fee paying visitors.   

The minister has called for advice on the recovery plan with Tourism New Zealand leading the project and with input from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Department of Conservation. That is a far too narrow and one-sided group. Neither the tourism industry or MBIE have so far shown any inclination to address the well-known negative impacts of unmitigated tourism on the environment and society and poor old underfunded DOC has long since sold its soul to the industry. 

If we manage to eliminate Covid-19 from New Zealand we will have to have tight restrictions on people coming here from countries where it still exists to prevent reintroduction. That alone means we can never return to the numbers of the past as most of the rest of the world will probably have permanent annual outbreaks. 

The future of tourism cannot be left to those who benefit the most from it any more than we would let the fishing industry set catch limits or allow the dairy industry to decide water quality.  

The Tourism Minister says he wants the industry to be financially sustainable. We now have a rare opportunity to also make it environmentally sustainable, socially acceptable and risk free to the nation. It has failed on all four to date.

For this long-awaited initiative to be successful there will need to be significant and genuine public input as it is the public who actually owns most of the attractions and scenery the tourists come here to see. The general public pays an inestimable subsidy to tourism in the form of rate-payer funded facilities and services to which the industry makes no additional contribution beyond the land rates, fees and charges which we all pay. 

While many may celebrate the collapse of tourism, the industry still has an import part to play in the recovery of the nation’s economy after Covid19. Given the known negative impact of the industry that part can only be decided by the nation as a whole. Public input to the tourism rescue plan must therefore be by way of submissions to a Select Committee or we risk repeating the unforgivable damage of the immediate past.