8 Jun 2014

John Key's high hopes for tourism

7:57 am on 8 June 2014

Prime Minister John Key pledged to make tourism New Zealand's most important money-maker in less than a decade when he added the job of Tourism Minister to his list of chores six years ago. But as Insight reports, significant obstacles remain in his path.

Mr Key was putting his best foot forward on the conference floor at this year's TRENZ tourism trade show in Auckland, the annual event for up to 1000 delegates who gather to sell New Zealand's tourism opportunities to international buyers from around the world.

Lake Tennyson in Nelson Lakes National Park.

John Key wants to help local economies by encouraging tourism in regional hotspots like Lake Tennyson in Nelson Lakes National Park. Photo: RNZ / Alison Hossain

Despite top destinations still drawing in tens of thousands each year and the hype generated by high-profile visitors such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently, the tourism industry has had its fair share of dark days. The economics have not always been good, and several deaths in the adventure industry have not helped.

But the TRENZ conference was concentrating on the positives, with Mr Key receiving kudos for committing nearly $160 million of extra funding to Tourism New Zealand. That, says Tourism New Zealand chief executive Kevin Bowler, is now providing enormous opportunity.

John Key

Prime Minister John Key Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Mr Key, who intends to take the tourism portfolio again if he wins the election, says he is pleased with the way Tourism New Zealand is seizing those opportunities, and identifying more clearly who is being targeted and why.

"The convention business area is one area, and high-yield tourists are another," he says.

These are the touchstones in Mr Key's plan to make tourism the number one earner of foreign exchange in the coming years.

"New Zealand values tourism. We see it as one of our core industries and it's a great driver of economic growth, particularly in the regions."

Visitors generate more than $24 billion dollars of value to the economy each year but in just under a decade the industry wants to increase that to $41 billion.

Trail-bike riding at Jack’s Point, near Queenstown.

Tourism chiefs want visitors to spend more while they are in New Zealand - on activities like trail-bike riding at Jack’s Point near Queenstown. Photo: Destination Queenstown

While Mr Key may be positive about the way the industry is developing, opposition spokesperson for tourism Darien Fenton is warning that it is not all smooth sailing.

She believes Mr Key picks off "the fun stuff" - the high-profile meetings and the ribbon-cutting ceremonies - and leaves the tourism dirty work to lower level ministers.

"He's still not sorted out the adventure tourism safety audits, 400 of which are supposed to be done by November. Only 72 have been completed so far," she says.

But Mr Key has given an assurance the work will be dealt with. Extra auditors have been employed and he says he has been advised that all the audits will be complete by the beginning of November.

Others, however, also raise the possibility of speed bumps ahead.

Lincoln University Professor of Tourism David Simmons cautions that the returns to New Zealand from each visitor have levelled out

"While international visitor arrivals may be up. Their expenditure is not rising and that's because of changing patterns. The Chinese don't stay as long as the British used to. That's resulted in lower yield and it's one of the issues the Prime Minister is going to have to tackle."

Mr Key knows that: "The goal is not to get more people. It's to get people to stay longer, spend more and generate more value. That's the goal and that's what I'm focused on."

Abel Tasman National Park.

Abel Tasman National Park's beaches already draw many tourists, but the hope is that more of them will be big spenders when they visit. Photo: RNZ / Alison Hossain