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Upton Online: Tourism, Global Warming And PR

Upton-on-line – Diaspora Edition


5th April 2001

In this issue…

Some reflections on New Zealand tourism (with all the benefit of distance), climate change (political rather than meteorological) and proportional representation with style – the French way…

Where the madding crowds come from (and go to)

Grinding his way through the Paris Métro a while back (busily saving the planet using public transport), upton-on-line rolled to a stop in a forlornly deserted arrêt to find himself staring at a large poster that looked more than vaguely familiar: crystalline water, white sand, brilliant skies, kayak with bronzed gods (young) in the foreground, rocky headland (ancient) in the distance.

The centime dropped. Upton-on-line’s secretary had arrived at work a few day’s earlier grim with grime and rain saying how she had walked into the Métro and glimpsed paradise and apparently it is in New Zealand. And sure enough, she was right. There it was in full colour.

Mind you, you had to look hard to find the references to New Zealand. The visual image is all sun-gilded paradise and pristine isolation. For a Kiwi in exile, the clinching evidence was the cameo shot of two photogenic little urchins sweetly hongi-ing. But for the rain-sodden Parisian, tired of nightly shots of flooded houses and disrupted transport (not to mention the rolling strikes every Thursday), it could have been anywhere. The real excitement would have been the price – time out from hell (including airfares and hotels) for prices kiwis would kill for. (There was some fine print about availability but that was hard to read).

Pure, maybe – but undefiled?

Of course it was hell – or at least purgatory – that led to this vision of heaven on earth. Upton-on-line readers will recall better than he those hectic days when being on the Tourism Board required an expert knowledge of the law relating to removal from office and being Minister for Tourism meant (for a brief period) having to spend an unseemly amount of time answering questions in the House rather than wintering over in Queenstown opening assorted industry conferences.

These were the dark days when there were heady plans to spend millions on feverish images of New Zealanders doing ordinary sorts of things like starring in the All Blacks, abseiling down the Caroline Face of Mount Cook, frolicking with whales in the shadows of the Kaikouras or free-styling in deep powder somewhere in the Harris Mountains. These folksy shots were to be beamed, real time, onto huge digital screens in places like New York’s Times Square as the new millennium broke over Pitt Island. In between margin calls, traders would book out entire high country fishing lodges for a weekend down under…

It all came back to upton-on-line as his eyes migrated to the top of the poster which curved up the cylindrical tiled walls of the metro stop. There, almost in the peripheral vision zone were the words which finally popped into the crater floor after the Tourism Board Krakatoa of 1999 – “100% Pure New Zealand”. No French commuter would have noticed them – they added nothing to the perfectly conventional snapshot of the after-life as imagined by trampers. But New Zealand taxpayers on holiday would have been comforted that their dollars were once again supporting wholesome images like our postage stamps used to before NZ Post discovered design school graduates.

Pure What?

So what was it that was 100% pure – the water in the picture, the Spartan attitude of the lithe young bodies in the kayaks, the natural nobility of the blemish-free young faces? Probably all of these. But what made it purely New Zealand? As the next tunnel engulfed upton-on-line and the glimpse of paradise was replaced by gloom the answer was not obvious. Diaspora dwellers might smell the manuka or identify the fractured coastline of Abel Tasman National Park. But Europeans would just see clean water, clean air – and a bargain.

The only trouble is that scarcely a week or so passed and the same stop was sporting another image of heaven – tranquil lakes, deserted hills, moody sky: the Auvergne in deepest France. “L’Auvergne est belle” it declaimed. Well, er… yes. 100% belle. And two weeks later Andorra was at it – “terre des Princes” it proclaimed. But the formula was no different – remote mountains and more trampers. Andorra’s point of market differentiation seemed to be about including a picture of some horses in its clean outdoors (no EU vets in sight yet).

Is that all we’re selling?

Upton-on-line is no expert. He had hoped to get the strategy from the horse’s mouth by ringing the Tourism Board in London. But it’s a lean organisation. And it can give MFAT a run for its money in putting up an impenetrable wall of recorded messages designed to deter all but the most desperate refugee … (“If you are being imprisoned by urban terrorists press 8, if you would like to volunteer to work in the Embassy library, press 9 etc. etc.)

The boss was away. The other person who might have been able to help turned out to be an answer phone. You could press 4 (for marketing) or 5 (for public relations) or 0 for an operator. The marketing and public relations people were both away (more answer phones) and there were no direct lines. Answer phones led to answer phones. It was 100% pure hell.

But the operator did provide the address of their website – www.tourisminfo.govt.nz. And it’s rather good. After you’ve gone through the rigmarole of enrolling and being given a log-in number, there’s a host of statistics with which to start building your picture of who we’re attracting. In the year ended February 2001, visitor arrivals to New Zealand totalled 1,824,375. Of those 375,732 came from Europe. Here’s the scorecard for the four most important European countries over the last three years (years ending in February):


Country 1999 2000 2001
United Kingdom 157,212 173,927 208,685
Germany 45,646 47,726 53,265
Netherlands 17,949 20,483 25,188
France 7720 10466 10105

France was one of only three countries (along with Italy and Switzerland) to go backwards in 2001 – (an America’s Cup phenomenon? The answer phone didn’t know the answer). So perhaps our image of golden sands and kayaks will regain the initiative and head off these pretenders to remote tranquillity like the Auvergne and Andorra.

So what’s the real difference between Andorra and Abel Tasman National Park?

Maybe there’s hugely sophisticated research in behind that photo. All upton-on-line knows is that Abel Tasman National Park is 24 hours away rather than 4 hours; that if there was another Chernobyl, going to Andorra (a micro-state on the French/Spanish border) wouldn’t feel like being a world apart; and that there are only 4 million people lurking outside the camera lens rather than over 300 million here in Europe. New Zealand is truly the last bus stop on the planet.

Which raises a really interesting conundrum for New Zealand’s tourism industry. If we’re selling emptiness and unstained environmental purity – experiences that rely, for their integrity, on extremely low population density – how do we reconcile that with growing the industry. And for that matter, how do New Zealanders reconcile that same birthright with repeated concerns that we’re not big enough and that we need a ton more people to go ‘critical’ as a nation?

Living in Occupied Paris

All of this has been swimming round in upton-on-line’s mind as the tourist season starts to engulf Paris. This is one of the most visited cities in the world. The last year for which complete statistics is available is 1999. Tourist arrivals in Paris totalled 14,469,572 of which roughly two thirds were foreign. And they’re not invisible. The riverside quais were crowded on a fine Sunday back in January. Now they are starting to become impassable. It’s imperceptible day to day, but week by week, unmistakable and inexorable. Slowly the city is being occupied – and more and more Parisians will start looking longingly at any destination that offers a respite from nose-to-tail congestion, asphyxiating metro squeezes and the hail of particulate from traffic exhaust that hangs over this windless city.

The French do it very well. Strikes aside, it is a city that has adapted to welcoming the hordes who come in search of the Paris they’ve read or dreamed of. It is remarkable that Paris still feels as Parisian as it does in the lead up to the peak months of May – July. But then again, it is one of the most structured and formal cities in the world. It was laid out to be occupied and tramped through. One occupier, Hitler, personally ordered its preservation. Today it’s what the tourists do - with a vengeance. Who knows what the limits are? But there seems to be a resilience about the Parisian experience that defies the odds.

The question is whether the New Zealand experience is as robust. Or will a trebling of arrivals simply see 100% Pure New Zealand become 50% pure drudge? At the peak, many street views of Notre Dame are totally obscured by phalanxes of your buses. But still they come – after all, those extraordinary mediaeval gargoyles and pools of stained glass light floating above the gloom of the transepts are not easily duplicated. But mountain grandeur and golden sands are common enough. And without a marketing strategy that differentiates them they seem highly vulnerable to de-basement. Because so much of what New Zealand sells is pure, outdoor, empty public space, there is a commons there for the filling – and a tragedy waiting to happen.

New Zealanders stoutly resist the idea of charging for access to that space. And they want the tourist receipts that it generates. So the outcome seems pre-ordained. Doesn’t it?

Things that could get in the way

Of course, tourism isn’t conducted in a vacuum. And while New Zealand may look empty, there are still rather a lot of animals wandering around waiting for their moment to be packed off to Paris (or wherever) as first class filets or hamburger fillings. They need the isolation and biologically contained environment just as much as the eco-tourism operator trading on the absence of people. Foreign organisms in excess – be they human or microbial – don’t fit the sort of economy we’ve built. Whether it’s food, fibre or wine, we’ve built an economy around exploiting an ecology that lacks all sorts of things that others have to cope with. And as foot-and-mouth here in Europe has reminded kiwis, their absence is a huge source of competitive advantage.

But there’s a message here for tourism as well. Because it’s tourism in Britain that has been hit every bit as hard as farming. And for New Zealand, a biosecurity emergency could be even more disruptive. It is estimated that foot and mouth is costing the UK tourism industry nearly NZ$400 million per week as foreign tourists assume that the countryside is closed (and awesomely ill-informed North Americans imagine that they risk picking up mad cow disease if they set foot there). The British Prime Minister is busily reminding everyone that the British countryside is open but read any British daily and the limitations on horse rising and walking in many areas give the impression of a very artificial sort of normality.

Upton-on-line recalls, from his time as Biosecurity Minister, all sorts of moans and groans from New Zealand tourism operators about who should pay for border controls and the efficiency or otherwise of the way people are processed at our borders. Let’s hope that tourist operators realise just how important biosecurity is for tourism itself. If New Zealand were ever in the grip of a major animal health or forest health crisis that led to restrictions on the movement of people, it wouldn’t just be rural folk who were affected. And let’s hope the industry has a biosecurity committee that works closely with the agro-forestry sector and supports its calls for better surveillance…

Could climate change affect tourism?

Upton-on-line has no idea (other than that things don’t look too bright for Franz Joseph). But it has always seemed to him that a big potential vulnerability for New Zealand tourism – especially a strategy based on high volume – is the risk of aviation fuel prices being bumped up as part of climate change mitigation strategies.

Avgas (like bunker fuel for ships) used for international purposes is currently exempt from taxes as a matter of international agreement. The result is that the cost of air travel is far cheaper than it would be if the fuel were taxed as most countries tax fuel for road use. It’s a gap in the climate change negotiations that has long been pointed to by environmental groups – and long been put in the too hard basket by negotiators who run a mile from the thought of an internationally co-ordinated tax. (Negotiators in the organisations which maintain this negotiated no-tax zone – ICAO and IMO – seem firmly outside the loop on this one).

If that were to change, high-volume low-value tourism would be the worst hit segment of the market. Let's hope there are plenty of niche operators targeting high value customers who come because others can’t afford to, stay for ages and spend heaps in an environment un-spoilt by the very hordes they’re escaping from.

But hasn’t the plug been pulled on climate change?

The climate for the Kyoto Protocol – and indeed the Framework Convention on Climate Change itself – certainly looks more uncertain than at any stage since 1992. The new Administration in Washington has announced that Kyoto is dead which, when the US emits 25% of global emissions, would seem to give it a fairly good chance of unilaterally sinking the Treaty.

Or does it? Upton-on-line’s attention has been drawn to a fascinating paper by Christian Egenhofer and Jan Cornillie entitled Reinventing the Climate Negotiations – An Analysis of COP6. You can find it at www.ceps.be It’s an unusually racy read from authors who are essentially policy wonks. It’s written from a staunchly European perspective and, in essence, argues that Europe is both morally obliged and economically justified in ratifying the Protocol unilaterally and leaving the US out in the cold.

The argument is that there are so many cheap deals out there in the nascent market for CO2 permits, that Europe (which has talked about ratifying regardless of the US) should rush out and tie up a series of strategic alliances with those countries that have cheap “hot air” permits available, in particular Russia. The first mover advantage could seriously disadvantage the US if it subsequently decided to come on board. The EU would have mopped up the lowest cost permits and taken a commanding position in the market. In addition, the authors argue, the EU should take a strategic position with developing countries through transfers to fund adaptation strategies and projects under the clean development mechanism.

The strategy seems to be one of engaging the US by forgetting about it. It all depends on the EU getting over its mystifyingly theological concerns about permit trading and, of course, the US finally being panicked into joining the game. Will it? That is by no means clear if only because the Administration has yet to spell out the precise basis for its decision to turn its back on climate change. If the Bush team is pulling out because they back the science sceptics who assert there isn’t a problem, then the American position is likely to reflect whichever bunch of scientists are listened to by the White House

But if the Administration’s position is that it fundamentally accepts the science but rejects the economic costs the particular solution proposed by the Kyoto Protocol would impose on the US, then a different sort of debate is likely to evolve. If the rest of the developed world ratified, and if developing countries started to hook into the opportunities that joint implementation with developed country operators offer, it could be that lost commercial opportunities might start to influence American minds.

The stakes would be even higher again if countries decided to assert the right to impose trade barriers in support of the treaty. But that’s all a bit surreal, especially when you consider that to this day there aren’t even any agreed rules of procedure to govern the negotiations between parties to the convention.

It’s simply too early to predict what will happen. The issue has not, thus far, been the subject of a carefully stated policy position by the Bush Administration. When it is you can bet it will be read with a fine toothcomb by an awful lot of negotiators – including our own in New Zealand who are at this stage closer to the European position on ratification than the US position.

It’s all going to make the joint meeting of environment and finance ministers at the OECD in May doubly interesting. The subject for debate at the ministerial meeting is tailor-made for the times – sustainable development, and why the gap between rhetoric and action is as big as it is! Upton-on-line looks forward to being a fly on the wall.

Intelligent proportional representation

Finally, a suggestion that our Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform should come to France and look at the way things are configured here.

Upton-on-line greatly enjoyed following the recent municipal election here in France. They’re far more exciting than our deadly triennial event into which even Tim Shadbolt can inject only a faint quiver of life.

The French enjoy extracting maximum pleasure from the spectacle of politicians falling all over one another by extending things over two rounds held a week apart. This issue does not have the space to go into the interstices of French electoral law (it is certainly complicated and the French love telling you that it is) but at its heart is a system that allows parties to fuse their lists between the first and second rounds.

Any party that wins over 50% in the first round obviously has no need of this manoeuvre. But if the vote is split several ways, parties have three days to merge their lists so that voters have a simpler (ideally two-way) choice at the second tour. The election here in Paris was particularly piquante. After 130 years in charge the Right lost the capital – all because they couldn’t unite behind a single candidate.

The story is too long to tell but is inextricably tied up with alleged corruption at city hall dating back to the reign of none other than M. Jacques Chirac himself. Having disowned the incumbent, M. Jean Tiberi, on the basis that he was too hot to touch, the Right’s candidate (M. Seguin) performed abysmally in the first round so that, with the Right split, the socialists were ahead. In ordinary times there would have been a fusing of lists for round two, but M. Seguin could not on principle merge his lists with the outcasts; and the outcasts had performed rather handily (especially M. Tiberi in the 5th Arrondissment). So the right went to the second round gallows disunited and lost to a triumphant Socialist Party led by M. Bertrand Delanouë who had quickly embraced the Greens as natural (and much respected) partners.

Fortunately for M. Chirac (for whom the results were all tea leaves in the 2002 presidential tea cup) there was a provincial swing to the Right. He was quick to draw much comfort from these other results to salve the loss of both Paris and Lyons. (All he has to do now is survive tedious summonses by Magistrates to appear as a witness in various corruption probes which have all of us rushing for the papers every night. Presidential dignity has been sorely taxed of late!)

But from the New Zealand perspective, the good thing about this system is that it permits the parties to go their separate ways first time round but then, if they’re of a mind, to form their putative coalitions in an open, straight-forward way prior to the second round. The result is that voters get to endorse or reject coalitions – they’re actually put to the test of the vote rather than cooked up after election night. In this case, the Socialists and the Greens merged their lists and did their deal cleanly and publicly in advance of Round 2. The Right couldn’t and paid the price.

Think now of our 1996 election. Following their epic deal (which would have had to be completed after just 3 days rather than 13 weeks), Bolger and Peters would have merged their lists for a second round and voters could have chosen between that and a possible Labour/Alliance ticket. It would be fascinating to know whether it would have changed the course of recent political history in New Zealand.

One thing is clear. Our form of proportional representation lets the political parties strike all the deals. The French system lets the parties read the writing on the wall and lets voters have a second crack at telling them whether they’ve got it right. It’s not too bad – and it certainly softens the crude one-shot/stab-in-the-dark approach we take to electing governments!

ENDS

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