Tourism operators raise concerns about new minister's plans

8:39 pm on 19 November 2020

Rotorua tourist operators are worried the industry may be biting the hand that feeds it if the country puts too much focus on attracting wealthy tourists once the border opens.

Airport arrivals board showing New Zealand and Pacific countries

File image. Photo: RNZ/Sara Vui-Talitu

Minister of tourism Stuart Nash has outlined his plans to ban the hiring of vans that have no toilet on board, and to focus on high value visitors.

His comments have caused a stir in the sector he's now in charge of.

Nash has made no apology for that - telling RNZ's Lately programme he understood backpackers were an important part of tourism in Aotearoa but he wanted to see more work aimed to attract wealthier tourists.

Stuart Nash gave his first speech as Tourism Minister at Tourism Summit Aotearoa at Te Papa in Wellington.

Stuart Nash. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

"I suppose what I was saying though is there are certain tourists that we want and certain habits that we don't want in this country and the last thing we need - in terms of our global branding - is people who drive around in these vans that actually aren't self contained," Nash said.

"When they need to go to the toilet, they pull over by the side of the road and they go to the toilet along a bush track or in a river or by the side of the road."

Rotorua Rafting's Sam Sutton said people could be quick to point the finger at tourists for bad behaviour, but they might also need to look closer to home.

"I haven't seen too many tourists around New Zealand at the moment and I've just been down cleaning a DOC reserve currently and there was a large poo in the middle of the track and there was also a poo in front of the toilet and the toilets had been used to flush with their feet so do I agree that it's just tourists disrupting the environment? No, I don't ... I think we also need to look internally."

He was worried that honing in on wealthy tourists would leave many operators high and dry - including some of the big tourism businesses that relied on volume.

"If that's going to happen the government really need to be clear on that as soon as possible because I know personally, myself, I wouldn't be continuing with business in the hope of just having one or two tourists come through every day. Even if they are paying a big sum, it's not going to balance out to what it used to be."

Enforcing fines if people did not follow the rules and ensuring there were clean facilities could help to improve behaviour, Sutton said.

Rotorua Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button was curious to find out what counted as a high-value visitor.

"Is it a luxury guest if they're paying $10,000 a day or they're a high value guest which is paying $10,000 a trip?"

He wanted to see more toilets and other infrastructure built - but not just for overseas travellers.

"New Zealand does lack infrastructure for that freedom camping sector and I think a reminder that we need to have is that it's not just about providing infrastructure for the freedom campers.

"It's about providing infrastructure for domestic, for Kiwis as well. There's bathrooms, recycling and rubbish facilities should be enjoyed by all New Zealanders."

While they might not want to see the back of backpackers, tourism operators said they were keen to keep communication open with Nash.

The youth market

YHA New Zealand was concerned that the comments might threaten the youth market, which represented almost a quarter - 450,000 people - of all annual holiday arrivals until Covid-19.

The youth market generated roughly $1.5 billion in foreign exchange earnings.

YHA chief executive Mark Wells said focusing on high value tourism discounted the significance of the youth market to the visitor economy in New Zealand.

"It also disregards that a large section of the tourism industry is geared towards a long-established position for Aotearoa New Zealand as a vibrant country for young and active visitors looking for adventure, culture and nature," Wells said.

"This has proven to be a successful strategy for our country and has supported strong industry growth and, with that, economic benefit over the past 20 years."

He did not question plans to consider a reset for tourism, but wanted Nash to develop a more rounded insight into the youth market and the role it played.

"The youth segment stays longer, visits more destinations, is more satisfied by their visit and takes part in more activities while they are here ... and often return when they are older," he said.

"Focusing on this market also achieves broad appeal to older demographics, whereas targeting older demographics is less likely to appeal to the younger market. By concentrating on high-value experiences that target middle-aged travellers we risk eroding the well-established positioning of New Zealand.

"This will limit the appeal to the youth market, but also the broader target as well. The older demographic is less likely to take part in extreme versions of experiences on offer. The adventurous and innovative spirit that these experiences represent should remain a draw-card and continue to define New Zealand."

National Party calls for caution

National Party tourism spokesperson Todd McClay called for the government to tread carefully before honing in on wealthy visitors and raising prices.

New Zealand couldn't afford to alienate visitors before the borders had even opened, he said.

"The government's got to be very careful that they're not deciding who it is they want to come because the only lever they have is price and if they decide to make it too expensive or more expensive for certain types of visitors to come to New Zealand, word will get around that New Zealand is no longer value for money.

"It will also mean it's more expensive for Kiwis to holiday here."

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