Dr Liz Gordon: What shall we do about tourism?


Tourism always seemed like a great industry. Happy people roaming the country, lots of things to do, places to see, meals to have, showcasing the beauties of Aotearoa.  About 10% of our GDP, pre-Covid, came from tourism activity, directly and indirectly, with further income generated by education dollars, also linked to the image of our country.

But tourism has such a bad side.  In London a couple of years ago, I was charged £16 to enter Westminster Abbey, a place I have been visiting (free) since I was a child.  And there were huge queues to get in.  Attempting on the same trip to visit the British Museum, I was defeated by the sheer numbers trying to enter.

Last weekend, my colleague Grant Hewison and I went down to Timaru to argue an appeal on behalf of the small community of Pleasant Point, who did not want a new liquor store in their midst. Well, Grant argued and I drove.

We had a couple of hours to spare and decided to drive up to Tekapo to see the lake, mountains and the little Church of the Good Shepherd. Neither of us had been.  The place is quite remote and was pretty deserted. A strong wind came out of nowhere.  We could not find a cup of coffee.  We took photos and returned back to Timaru.

Grant later shared his pictures with his friends, and got back the message that we were very lucky – in the heyday of tourism, one could not even see the little church for the numbers of tourists milling around.

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As you can see from the photo above, there was not much milling around last weekend. Except for the extraordinary wind! Lake Tekapo is 720 metres above sea level, much higher than the other big South Island lakes. On a winter’s day it was very cold (the air, I mean – I did not venture into the lake) (instant death, I would think).  

If you haven’t been there, this glacier-fed lake is a bright turquoise, very beautiful against the snow-covered hills.  I can see why people would travel from all over the world to visit it. Stunning. And that is without the dark skies stuff.

The amazing beauties of our country must be contrasted with the realities of the tourism industry. The majority of the jobs available are low-paid, insecure and pretty awful. While some owners and operators make money, the reality for locals in places like Rotorua is often minimum wage scud work. Most of them cannot afford to stay in the places they work in, nor eat at the restaurants where they work. 

Those fleets of shiny camper vans clog up the roads and turn places like Tekapo into service centres for travelling foreigners. We are fortunate that distance and cost combine to keep numbers down to an extent.

Queenstown is an interesting case.  Many of the workers there in tourism are foreign young people with work visas, able to stay for a year or so. They speak of difficulties of getting accommodation they can afford on the low wages.  Some even share beds on a shift rotation, to make best use of the space. This is not economic development – it is mere profit-taking.

Covid has given back to us the joys of a relatively lonely and untouched Aotearoa.  Do we want them all back – the cruise ships, the packed places of beauty, the formulaic pattern of Rotorua, Queenstown and a brief peek at Auckland, the environmental degradation that goes with tourism? What about freedom campers and those whose footprint is much smaller but who contribute little economically?

I think one answer is to encourage local development of tourism, along the lines of the Whale Watch story in Kaikoura. Māori already contribute hugely to tourism but are more likely to be your cleaner than your host. Large international operators take their profits out of New Zealand but leave many of the costs here.

Current tourism policy is informed by pre-Covid planning.  It is time, after this long pause, o re-consider the role of tourism in this country, and how to re-direct the benefits to ordinary people.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. It is clear there is no appetite to return to pre Covid tourism numbers.
    The only ones bleating are the operators who made their profits at the expense of the low paid workers, desperate backpackers and passport hunting foreign nationals.
    Communities have their favourite public spaces, reserves and beaches back, our libraries, car parks and cafes. Our land is healing.
    Tourism needs to serve the country in a sustainable, environmentally responsible manner that does not prejudice local communities whilst lining the pockets of often overseas owned tourism outfits.
    This would point to heavily reduced numbers, a substantial tourist tax, a ban on low paid foreign labour and a review of the DOC concession rort where public land is given over to tourist operators for profit.

    • Well said Jack, you sum it up clearly and accurately.

      Even some of the responsible operators see there was a problem, whereas others try to tell us more is better.

  2. Pre Covid there were queues of campervans waiting to dump waste at the Hokitika sewage ponds for FREE. Just one example of Tourism socializing costs and privatizing profits.
    Cannot think of one example in Westland where a campervan company has sponsored any type of infrastructure or event that benefits the community. Just more and more campervans.
    These campervan companies are raking in the money and leaving locals with literal shit.
    Go back to the way it was? No thanks.

    • “Pre Covid there were queues of campervans waiting to dump waste at the Hokitika sewage ponds for FREE. ”
      In other words they are encouraging the campers to act responsibly. Make it expensive or difficult to deal with the waste properly and it will end up in your parks.
      It’s not as if it a huge cost burden on the ponds.

  3. Tourism for the most part was poorly paid. Rather than raise wages many operators from hotels to restaurants instead bought in exploited labour. Once the exploited got NZ residency, they of course left their job and this left the tourist industry constantly braying for more new bodies to toil in their Ponzi. Meanwhile housing shortages and poverty flourished with so many new to NZ with few skills in an industry that didn’t want to pay them properly.

    The critical skills shortages are a myth. Many returnees to NZ are not given interviews for jobs as the number one interest in neoliberal NZ for many employers, is how to get labour cheaper and they don’t want to change and have any new ideas or challenges to current management. https://businessdesk.co.nz/article/economy/missing-a-trick-why-globally-experienced-kiwis-struggle-on-return In addition they don’t want native Kiwis as they are more likely to whistleblow on the constant scams and illegal or socially not acceptable environmental, wage and product standards becoming known, that has expanded in NZ and leading to lower standards everywhere and lower productivity in many areas.

    ‘They’re not hiring Kiwis’: Locals keen to pick fruit ignored, rejected

    Oil rig workers claim unfair treatment in a system ‘rotten to the core’

    Kiwi labour is internationally sought after and well known, but somehow only in NZ is Kiwi labour labeled drugged out and lazy to keep the most unproductive and environmentally destructive industries afloat.

    • “The critical skills shortages are a myth”. I’m not sure if this is the case across the board. Yes, granted, in some industries –primarily hospitality, horticulture and tourism – employers squeal that they can’t find skilled workers but as the counter-argument goes, in the absence of a labour shortage, there is a wage shortage. Or perhaps closer to the truth, hospitality, horticulture and tourism offer jobs that are precarious, seasonal, often part-time, and barely pay the living wage when accommodation is not part of the package. Even when it is, its bunk style. It’s little wonder local kiwis won’t apply, no surprise at all that those not local will not relocate.

      But can we extrapolate to other industries? Take the horse breeding industry for one. Thoroughbred stallions are huge powerful animals, more than potentially dangerous when being mated with mares on heat, and the industry argues that there are not enough experienced and skilled handlers in NZ. This is not a shout out to horse breeders but is it a valid case? Immigration NZ doesn’t think it is. Is it a message to the industry to start training up more locals? Ultimately of course that is what the future holds.

      If for arguments sake there IS a current skills shortage across the board, well, what does that look like? Common understandings of what “skills” are abound but in the academic world what constitutes a skill, or skills, is contentious, namely because skills are complex and socially constructed. Perhaps in the real world outside academia skills are better understood by those who work with them on a daily basis. Any tradesman can attest to that. As can a laboratory technician. Or an arborist, nurse, or teacher. Possibly a kiwi fruit picker or barista?

      At its simplest skills can be defined as the ability to perform tasks and solve problems related to a particular set of tasks, but this misses the mark on complexity. Most obviously, the skills needed by a GP are not the same as those needed by a croupier. Experts try to overcome this by categorizing skills in terms of (1) cognitive skills, a type of general education competence, (2) technical skills associated with the ability to perform certain tasks in a particular context and (3) behavioural skills, which seem to me about turning up for work, on time.

      I reckon those three are interrelated to some degree but the horse breeders are talking mostly about technical skills I feel. But what do, for example, Sky City managers mean when they say there is a skills shortage? Or the hospitality and horticulture industry? Are they referring to a lack of basic literacy and numeracy, often seen as a proxy for cognitive skills; a lack of technical skills; a poor work attitude; or more generally, lack of experience. It’s not clear to me. Or are they simply trying to deceive us by claiming in some vague, fuzzy way that local kiwis ‘lack skills’ while simply trying to maximise profits, by wanting to continue employing casual imported labour and I might add, unwilling to invest in(re)training.

      If there are any employers who read TDB, readers would be interested in your take. Labour shortage, skills shortage, or wage shortage? And if skills are in short supply, what skills?

      • I think it usually works like this… I need workers with a high level of skills (ie able to do the job I want done well without me having to pay for additional training / productivity loss), but I only want to pay the minimum possible (… and it’s a crap job/ short time/ difficult/ dangerous/ requires relocation to nowheresville), thus you will have difficulty finding “skilled” workers. You could offer more money, better conditions & additional training, then your problem would probably disappear, but that’s not how we roll in Kiwiland.

        If you are wanting someone with a specific skill set that requires many years of study plus true ability, such as a neuro-surgeon or real IT specialist, then the supply is very limited & you will have to work hard to attract a suitable candidate. That is a true skills shortage.

        It’s sort of like the old saying “Cheap, quick or good, pick two”. In New Zealand if we can’t have all three, it’s due to a “skills shortage”, not an unwillingness to pay properly or provide suitable training.

        • +1 Richard Slade, but I think the woke and government ministers and ministries can’t tell the difference between a critical skill that is an apple picker against a neurosurgeon. Our immigration policy is blind to it the difference in skill and training, to the detriment to NZ public. Weird because most of the public can actually see the difference!

          I also don’t think many of the jobs that they are braying out for, can even be called skilled workers aka waiting tables, retail, labouring and support workers. It is a Ponzi that eventually will bankrupt the countries as our country goes into debt to get more and more foreign families free benefits that only benefit a sunset exploiter, who generally doesn’t even make many profits or at least their accountants minimise them!

          • I have a particular set of skills & if I work overseas I’ll earn over $100k a year. I could train someone to do most of the stuff I’d need to do in under 2 weeks, assuming they were reasonably intelligent & keen to learn, but you’d still need a 3 year university degree plus a number of industry qualifications, full drivers licence, a clean drug test & clean medical to get the job.

            When there was a real skill shortage, finding work was easy, even with no experience, because demand was so high, a couple of hours between application to job offer, the money was good too, as long as you had the right degree & the legal right to work. When there is a real skills shortage, money becomes no object & you do what ever you can to get the right people, otherwise your business suffers.

            It is pretty disgusting the way most “skills shortages” are complained about in NZ, as they are really just a lazy & cheap ways to skip out on training staff, offering reasonable conditions or paying a decent wage. If you can not find staff, it is often more of a reflection on you & your business structure, than the labour market.

            • “If you can not find staff, it is often more of a reflection on you & your business structure, than the labour market”.

              Too true.

      • Richard Slade hit the nail on the head, aka shortage of workers for employers completely impractical jobs aka

        “I need workers with a high level of skills (ie able to do the job I want done well without me having to pay for additional training / productivity loss), but I only want to pay the minimum possible (… and it’s a crap job/ short time/ difficult/ dangerous/ requires relocation to nowheresville.”

        So they should have changed their business operations years ago but didn’t need to and actually got even worse in their thinking ,,, aka bus drivers,,, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/115060711/driving-a-bus-used-to-be-a-career-now-its-a-last-resort-job

        “I entered the bus driving industry in the late 1990s in Auckland, when it was a respected job in society.

        I was a happy driver, employed by the council. I had benefits such as roster and overtime penal rates, union-focused conditons, a social club, holiday housing and stability. Most importantly, I enjoyed doing the work.

        Then something happened; deregulation came calling.

        Bus companies began to employ newly-arrived immigrants and retirees, streamlining the rosters to what the regional councils required, splitting shifts and cutting overtime rates. Wages stagnated to just above minimum wage, except on public holidays, and drivers were replaced with casuals and on call staff.

        Working in the bus industry stopped being a career but a job of last resort, like working in McDonald’s or KFC.

        Now, I work split shifts and weekends. I’ve been robbed of my cash box, verbally abused by passengers, spat on, and had to clean up vomit and used condoms.

        In Wellington, the new operator thought that once they had won the tender, the drivers from the previous company would just up sticks and come over to them. But it doesn’t work like that.

        The industry has a lot of drivers who are close to retirement. The cost to the driver of gaining their ‘P’ endorsement, police and medical checks comes close to $600 – and they expected drivers to work for $22 per hour while splitting their shift over 14 hours. What could go wrong?”

  4. Thank you Dr Liz for a balanced and very timely review.
    Tourism has destroyed many of the worlds beautiful places – there is no limit to the destruction mankind is prepared to inflict on the planet for financial profit. It also created many low wage exploitative jobs and like many industries it does not pay for the environmental damage it causes. Can our tax system be adapted to capture those costs?
    As you say much of the profit flows off-shore. It is well past time for a reset before we are driven by the financial gurus back to the old ‘normal’.

  5. I’m with Peter Kelly – thanks for the balanced review Dr Liz. But our tourism, aue taukiri e, we have just overdone it here as with so many other things in past decades – OTT looking for Profit and not Fit for Purpose. It’s good to have young people from other countries able to come here and learn about us and vice versa. But what numbers? And the freedom campers, some okay but where is the balance. Times have changed from my youth and following advice for budget tourists from Frommer, whose original ‘1957 book, “Europe on $5 a Day’ had gone up to $10 a day by late 60’s.

    And the Cows (Comfortably-off-wealthy) – nothing much between the ears there as far as realistic or holistic thinking is concerned. Some just want to gawp at places, or escape seasonal weather or partake of tourist attractions in the Gold Coast in Oz (and help to kill off the Barrier Reef; damage which Oz is reluctant to address. Good to have skiing instructors here who move from one hemisphere to another, but that lifestyle will change will less snow around, of the cold sort. The ‘snowbirds’ that used to flock to Florida to escape the northern winter may have to change, those that can spend half a year here and half at their real home; they actually get to know us and have input of money and ideas.

    Tourists who stay longer and use NZ owned facilities can help the country’s economy and employment. Young people getting their OE good, in right numbers. I have good memories of my OE. But we let foreigners buy our businesses; perhaps we can advertise ourselves for being a country that excels at shooting – ourselves in the foot!

  6. Kill the Industry. it isnt a productive sector when it is dependent on a low waged, casual workforce and the multinational tourism industry repatriates revenues offshore.
    It’s a negative contributing industry as a whole when taking into account the input the Taxpayer has to provide with subsidised training and education for this casual seasonal workforce. As well as the funding needed to construct tourist attractions and maintain infrastructure.

  7. I don’t mind tourists at all. The money they spend here should never be allowed to go directly off-shore though.
    Tourists sure do make a nice change from the ugly, surly, mean, scowling, greedy Kiwi.
    I’ve watched on in horror as really quite sweet tourists got openly insulted, ignored and plain old ripped off by nasty Kiwi shop staff in and around Queenstown.
    I’ve also met a number of ‘tourists’ who told me they believed the NZ tourism hype, came here expecting high times but were then treated abysmally. Many swore they’d never come back and I don’t blame them.
    Nearly 40 years of Natzo neoliberalism has taught many of us that others are merely cash vending machines to be exploited by what ever means.
    We’ve become natzo/neoliberal psycho-conditioned, sociopathic narcissists. Great fun for the whole family !
    Who wouldn’t want to fly half way around the world to see a hill with some ice on the end of it only to get insulted then ripped off?

  8. “Māori already contribute hugely to tourism but are more likely to be your cleaner than your host.” Nonsense. In the South Island Ngai Tahu are the largest player in the tourism industry. Tourism Holdings LTD and other iwi owned corporations own the lions share in the NI. I don’t know what the spit would be. At a guess 70% iwi – 30% other?

  9. Each comment interesting.
    From the top – Jack – I agree. Suggestions for the future are sound.
    Monkra – The crux of the matter with vans and self-drive. Also mucking up the roads and thinking because the road is empty it always will be. Can’t impulsively stop jump out and photo. Also intersections, know we drive left and vote centre-right!
    Ex Labour – If what the others say about disgruntled tourists is right, you might meet some who think just like you. Why don’t you get together and have a good grouse!
    savenz and other longer comments. Good to think about.
    Denny Paoa – You sound young and feckless. Tourism is part of our money infrastructure and keeps us in touch with people from the wider world. Drop it and we all might end up as witless as you.
    neil – I think you may be overlooking the fact that Maori have to run businesses to match the neoliberal hegemony. They can do a certain amount for their people, and must take a kaitiaki approach to be true to themselves, but they have to invest their money paid out and want it to grow, and have trained professionals running it who can compete with the predatory business approach we have in NZ, called competition and other epithets.

    • You want competition from the supermarkets and probably everywhere else that you shop but don’t agree with the principle.

  10. cs You don’t know what my opinions and thinking are. And I was thinking about tourism not supermarkets. You don’t come on a blog to learn anything different from your opinions apparently. You have a principle do you?

    and John Thank you – having your eggs or chicks pushed out by the interloper must be discombobulating.

    • Every young kiwi have been pushed out of home ownership by many interloping cuckoos. The strange thing is the kiwis parents are in on it and are happy for the cuckoos to do so much damage as long as it means the parents wealth grows? Strange times indeed? Jacinda, remember, your inaction speaks louder than words.

  11. Tourism is a nasty, parasitic industry that often ends up killing the host it feeds on. Much of the money pumped in to the industry is hoovered up by overseas owned companies, tourist ventures are often staffed by budget tourists, the low wages merely subsiding their holiday. Creating a sort of circular economy, where the wealthier tourists pay for budget tourists holidays, rather than providing jobs for Kiwis, with most of the money disappearing back out of the country.

    The environmental damage is staggering & infrastructure costs or clean up costs are generally borne by the local ratepayers or taxpayers. Tourism prices locals & citizens out of their own country, homes turn into AirBnBs & are priced accordingly, homeless locals sleep on the streets while holiday homes sit empty for much of the time.

    It is an industry that has its place, but definitely needs to be kept in check and before Covid struck, it was certainly having some major negative effects.

  12. Spent years in my 20’s in the south. A magical land, my fav was Otago. Hitch hiked around the South 3 times, nearly died in the cold in the Alps, and from heat exhaustion in the summer coming into Macetown ( back of Arrowtown).Lived in an old gold miners hut and had a gold mining pump in the rivers, saw whitetails and Wapiti in Glenorchy and left them be even though we were bow hunting, as we didn’t need the meat. Did the Barry Crump thing later on up the West coast in the falcon ute, saw things most people would never see,… esp the gold mining. Only place as beautiful is Huia, Waitakeres, Auckland,… my hometown.

    So low wage tourism?

    WTF was that all about but profiteering free market neo liberals. I’m glad the hordes aren’t coming here anymore. There’s far better ways to make the bucks and spread the wealth if we go back to our social democratic Keynesian economic footings we had pre 1984.

    Until then?- all those foreigners can content themselves with youtube clips if they want to see our fantastic country. We are one of the only country’s who are not seen constantly sporting face nappies and there’s a jolly good bunch of reasons for that.

  13. We can control tourism, like the tiny nation of Butan does, and has done so for decades. Lets take a page out of their playbook now Covid has enforced a change and hopefully a reevaluation of a better way to do things.

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