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.
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.