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Time for decisive tourism action, not reimagination

By Veronika Vermeulen

Veronika Vermeulen

Reimagining tourism is like calling in an architect instead of the fire service while your house is still burning down. That’s what a tourism representative told Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee recently, and she has a point.

New Zealand’s tourism operators don’t need or want Wellington spending time reimagining things. Our individual operators need to be trusted, not lectured. Afterall, they built this $40 billion industry for our country, which includes world leading eco-tourism businesses and sustainability practices. They know what attracts today’s visitors, more so than any marketers.

The tourism sector accepts the Government’s $400m Tourism Recovery Fund, announced in last month’s Budget, is just the start of ongoing support. However, the sector, and indeed the country, would be better served if individual businesses were empowered to make more of their own survival decisions, rather than too much central control.

Queen’s Birthday Weekend showed Kiwis are keen to travel domestically. How many of them did that because of Tourism New Zealand’s ‘Do Something New, New Zealand’ marketing domestic campaign? Very few, if any. The reality is with international travel largely off the table, Kiwis’ love for travel continues but just internally. So why dedicate a substantial part of a $400m fund to encourage the inevitable?

Going forward, instead of giving a heap of tourism marketing dollars to an advertising agency, an allocation should be made available to large and small tourism operators to spend on their own initiatives. Many are on life-support thanks to the Government’s successful Wage Subsidy Scheme, but equally many will soon see the plug pulled.

I’m not saying there’s no place for a domestic marketing campaign. It can only help. However, let’s now ensure the Government’s promise of ongoing support is targeted directly at individual tourism businesses rather than making big rebranding splashes.

As the Wage Subsidy Scheme has shown, direct business support has kept the doors open and many in work which includes many of the 400,000 employed in and around our visitor economy. The scheme’s extension for another eight weeks, with stricter criteria, is welcomed but what about all the other operational and capital costs?

Good on Larnach Castle for offering cut-price annual passes to locals so at least they can make repeated visits and enjoy their café and gift shop, despite the pandemic decimating the popular Dunedin attraction’s revenue.

Most tourism businesses, however, don’t possess such ongoing passive recreation appeal for locals of all ages to enjoy. Instead, they need to target very specific one-off domestic tourists, with an irresistible proposition, and to do that they need financial support now. That’s what will keep their doors open. Reimaging won’t!

Up until this year, tourism was our top export earner. Let’s not now stand by and watch an industry which has been so key to New Zealand’s growth and identity be completely obliterated. We need to plan to take some smart and decisive action.

New Zealand has long been a popular travel destination for Australians with 1.5 million visiting in 2019, accounting for 40% of all international visitors. Excitement is building about a Trans-Tasman travel bubble, but the Government also needs a strategy to open our doors to others. We can’t just wait for a vaccine, otherwise there simply won’t be a sector to respond by then and the cost to rebuild tourism will be even higher for the country.

My business Aroha New Zealand Tours, which organises luxury private guided tours, has many overseas clients who are waiting in the wings. They haven’t cancelled. They’re still keen to come to New Zealand - in fact they’re arguably keener than ever given our country getting on top of Covid-19.

A managed strategy to attract the likes of wealthy travellers, currently locked out of much of the world, could be one option. Some come via private jet or super yacht and would be happy to be tested at the border and even if negative, then quarantined under strict conditions in the likes of a private lodge. These people, who generally place huge value on their personal health and spend significantly per visit, are just one example of how we could work smarter.

Then there are ways to entice budget and family travellers to New Zealand. As our international border starts softening in the coming months and years, the Government’s promise of ongoing support could come via subsidising the travel costs of international tourists. Japan is just one country that is now actively considering covering some of the costs for inbound tourists. Again, just another idea.

Now’s not the time to reimagine the future of our tourism sector. The priority is survival. Let’s back our operators, and let’s see a strategy to start opening up our country to visitors safely but surely.

Veronika Vermeulen is owner of Aroha New Zealand Tours and a travel industry expert. She has been welcoming high-value, luxury foreign travellers to New Zealand for over 20 years.

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