Are backpackers really less valuable to New Zealand than those with more money? | New Zealand

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Kiwis have a long history of welcoming guests and sharing what we love about our country. So it was perhaps no surprise that recent comments from New Zealand’s new minister of tourism, Stuart Nash, have elicited such passionate debate amongst locals and the industry.

Speaking at a summit hosted by the Tourism Industry Aotearoa, Nash said the future of the New Zealand tourism industry is high-net-worth visitors who spend more while they are here. To show his intent in this area Nash also said he would like to ban the hire of non-self-contained vans to tourists to stop “Freedom Campers” – a specific subset of backpackers who sleep in their vehicle wherever the fancy takes them, as opposed to paying a few dollars for a campsite with amenities such as bathrooms.

Many of these vans do not have toilets onboard which leads to an issue of human waste in pristine locations, an issue which has locals riled, and which Nash has singled out: “They pull over to the side of the road and they shit in our waterways,” Nash told RNZ on Wednesday.

The ministerial directive that the industry should be focusing on “value over volume” should come as no surprise having been stated as one of the goals in the government’s 2019 tourism strategy.

Who doesn’t want to extract more value? But this is where we encounter our first problem: What is “value” and which kind of tourists offer the best return?

The rich traveller in the fancy lodge spends more money per day than the backpacker with their instant noodles, but stays for a far shorter time, and where does the money they spend go?

A large number of luxury lodges in New Zealand are foreign-owned, so that money is not providing much value to New Zealand. The backpacker will frequent smaller shops, in more dispersed locations, over a much longer period of time.

Backpackers will also contribute to the economy by working their way around the country, picking fruit, working on farms, or even filling professional roles. In an average year prior to Covid, 70,000 visitors to New Zealand would visit on 12–24 month working holiday visas (plus another 75,000 on student visas) which allow for half the trip to be spent working. It is this group which makes up the majority of backpackers. Staying long-term means many have parents or friends that come to visit them whilst they are here, and spend more money.

Both groups will provide free marketing services via their social media and face-to-face when they return home. Individuals from both groups fall in love with the country (or one of the people) and end up making the move permanently, contributing to economic output and paying taxes for decades to come.

Backpackers are also likely to return as high spending visitors in the future, having spent years yearning to recapture their amazing experiences as a youth in New Zealand.

The above considerations are purely financial. When looking at the long-term sustainability of a business, or indeed an entire industry, the “three-P” framework is often used: people, planet, profits. What is the environmental impact of the rich visitor with their helicopter trips versus the 20-year-old in their van? There is very little data on this and more work needs to be done.

Similarly with the impacts on communities. Intuitively you would say the backpacker is providing more community engagement down at the pub, volunteering, joining in sports, but that might not be true. We just don’t have the data regarding the cultural exchanges enabled by different tourist segments.

Work needs to be done to determine exactly which tourist segments represent the most value, and over what time scale we measure that value. This needs to be balanced with New Zealand’s welcoming attitude toward all people – it is not an elitist destination.

The rise of cheap international travel over the last two decades has brought a large increase in tourist numbers to New Zealand with almost four million international visitors in 2019 contributing 20.4% of all New Zealand’s export earnings and employing up to 14% of the workforce.

It has also brought significant problems, as identified in the commissioner for the environment’s report Pristine Popular, Imperilled? which detailed the environmental impact tourism was having on New Zealand’s most iconic scenery.

How fast the global tourism industry recovers after the Covid-19 remains to be seen. Will travellers be too nervous to return to the air, or will pent-up demand have more influence on passenger numbers?

Will we see new budget airlines as a result of so many aircraft sitting idle potentially being sold off cheaply, or will the surviving carriers increase costs to pay down debt accumulated during the pandemic?

Whatever happens next, can the New Zealand tourism industry afford to be picky after a year of business closures and redundancies and at a time when global competition will be fierce?

Anthony Gardiner is a marketing strategist who recently completed an MBA with Otago University focused on sustainable tourism recovery from Covid-19.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Are backpackers really less valuable to New Zealand than those with more money? | New Zealand

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