Wednesday Letter: Is tourism becoming the new dairy?

Tourism has overtaken dairy as NZ’s top export earner but is it about to fall as far as that industry in terms of reputation, asks the Ticker‘s Paul Yandall.

Paul Yandall

A couple of weeks ago, Tourism New Zealand and Tourism Industry Aotearoa produced their latest Mood of the Nation survey. The survey is conducted in November and March each year and attempts to measure New Zealanders’ perceptions of international tourism.

It was heartening to read that 92% of the 501 respondents surveyed agreed that international tourism was good for New Zealand.

But behind that headline figure, in the survey itself, the results were alarming.

In almost every measure of sentiment, the trend was of negative perceptions of tourism increasing and positive perceptions decreasing.

Sure, the proportion of people who viewed tourism and its effects positively still outweighed those who viewed it negatively (albeit only just in some measures). But for how long will that continue?

The proportion of New Zealanders who think the country attracts too many international visitors has more than doubled from 11% in December 2015 to 23% in November 2017.

Over the same period, the proportion of New Zealanders who believed the predicted growth in international visitors is too much has jumped from 30% to 44%. And the view that tourists put too much pressure on New Zealand has blown out from 18% to 40%.

These trends are not just alarming they are downright dangerous for the industry. If they continue then tourism risks being relegated to an accepted economic ‘evil’, tolerated for the cash it generates but operating with little or no community support, its effects publicly castigated both at home and from overseas.

What makes the latest survey particularly sober reading was the fact that it was conducted before the summer headlines of freedom camping crackdowns, tourists overrunning towns, and community poo patrols. Now, even farming is taking a crack.

So, what can be done?

An informal industry working group comprising the TIA, TNZ and Regional Tourism NZ has been formed with the aim of trying to turn these trends around.

TNZ chief executive Stephen England-Hall has lamented the lack of communication between the industry and the public so could a positive domestic campaign highlighting not just tourism but the industry itself and its value be an option?

That would not only require a significant change in the way TNZ operates it would also need a near-revolution in the way the industry portrays itself, with the domestic market and its concerns becoming a much higher priority.

Or will the industry just wait until it has to helicopter in Richie McCaw to front an excruciatingly defensive Fonterra-like campaign reminding people that tourism, like dairy, makes a positive contribution too? That’s the ‘ad at the bottom of the cliff’ strategy.

Of course, some work is being done. TIA’s Sustainability Commitment launched last year was in part formulated to help align the industry with the values of the community.

However, it’s clear that it’s not enough and if the industry does not address the concerns raised in the latest Mood of the Nation survey then it risks its reputation falling to a position that will be difficult to recover from. Just like dairy’s.

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