Covid-19

Is Covid-19 the beginning of the end for mass tourism to NZ?

Two Cents Worth answers listeners’ questions around how Covid-19 might change the world.

A couple of weeks ago, Two Cents' Worth listener David Cohen got in touch with a question we loved: Could we find out from other TCW enthusiasts how they think Covid-19 could change the world? 

We asked and got some awesome replies.

One listener asked about whether Covid-19 could herald the loss of civil liberties in democratic countries, another about whether the pandemic could be a catalyst to eventually push New Zealand away from its destiny as a theme park and a farm. A third asked whether a price cap for all goods and services, including imports, would ensure the taxpayer will get long term value from the bail out.

We hope to get to some of these in the future, but for this episode we took two questions. Both are covered in the audio below, and in this article we explore the first, on mass tourism's future. 

That question was from David Cohen himself: “Coupled with the need to respond to global warming, is this the beginning of the end for mass tourism?” he asked. And in fact that theme - Covid-19 as a catalyst for better environmental management - was picked up in a number of other questions.

The second question we chose was totally different. But equally fascinating. It was whether the virus would lead to a different way of designing everyday objects so that we don't have to touch them, and so germs can’t spread through them. 

Door handles, for example, or light switches or taps - particularly when they’re installed in public places. 

More on that one in the audio above, but also in this, separate, story.

Making sustainability part of the tourism rebuild 

To answer David Cohen’s question about Covid-19 and mass tourism we got in touch with an expert at the University of Otago.

Professor James Higham works at the business school and one of his main areas of research is sustainable tourism. He co-edits the international, peer-reviewed Journal of Sustainable Tourism. 

Higham is in lockdown at his home on the Otago Peninsula - a place once described by English botanist and TV presenter David Bellamy as “the finest example of eco-tourism in the world”.

James Higham on 90 Mile Beach during the Tour Aotearoa, just before the virus struck. Photo: Supplied

Higham says Cohen’s question is particularly prescient as the impact of mass tourism on New Zealand has been top-of-mind since Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and former National MP, wrote a hard-hitting report published just before Christmas last year. 

Entitled “Pristine, popular... imperilled? The environmental consequences of projected tourism growth”, the report warns of the downsides of the huge growth in international visitors – the numbers rose from one million in the early 1990s to almost four million last year, and before Covid hit, they were predicted to rise to five million around 2024. 

The pressures of mass tourism include biodiversity loss, water quality degradradation, greenhouse gas emissions and sheer visitor numbers ruining some of the “wild” landscapes people come to see, Upton said. 

Think the Tongariro Crossing hike, Franz Joseph, Milford Sound, Fox Glacier, or Roy’s Peak near Wanaka. 

“In selling access to these experiences, tourism risks becoming an extractive industry in its own right,” Upton said. “An inexorable growth in numbers risks an irreversible decline in both environmental quality and human experience of it. That could run the risk of ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg’.” 

The report also canvassed the biggest, scariest question of all: Given the fact practically every tourist has to take a long haul flight to get here, is there a long term future for international tourism in New Zealand at all?

That was in the BC era - before Covid. Now we have no international tourists, and no domestic ones either. And that scenario is unthinkably harsh for the thousands of big and small tourism operators in New Zealand, Higham says.

Tourism is basically going to have to do what electricity generators call a “black start” - gearing up from a total shutdown. 

"We have the opportunity to stop and think and rebuild a more sustainable tourism system"

The first step, he says, is to help businesses survive, and to try to restore some economic certainty in extremely uncertain times.

But as part of rebuilding the sector “we have the opportunity to stop and think and we have the opportunity to rebuild a more sustainable tourism system”, HIgham says.

“I think of it in terms of rewiring the tourism system. If you think of rewiring a house, it’s a huge commitment, a huge cost and a significant undertaking, but it’s much easier to wire the house when you're rebuilding the house. 

“There’s a lot of pain and uncertainty and stress currently around the sector, but we could have the opportunity to rebuild the sort of tourism industry the Parliamentary Commissioner’s report talks about.”

Higham thinks New Zealand has been slow to respond to challenges related to climate change. “We have an opportunity for disruption at this time, to reimagine and build a future-proofed tourism industry that will help solve climate change issues to 2050 and well beyond that.”

Tourism optimisation

Researchers around the world are looking at something called “tourism optimisation”, Higham says.

That’s about accepting that not all tourists bring the same value, not just in terms of what they spend, but also in terms of the damage they do to the environment and local resources. The idea is that we should try to target the ones that bring the greatest benefits and the least costs. 

New Zealand will have to go for tourism optimisation. Photo: Kieren Scott, NZ Story

And the big spenders aren’t necessarily the optimum tourists, Higham says. If you are looking at it through an environmental lens you could argue that a backpacker that spends a few months tootling about the country in a campervan - or even better on a bike - is more valuable than a guy that flies in, stays in top-of-the-range lodges - lodges that are expensive to build and run - and takes helicopter flights over Franz Joseph and Milford Sound.

“In a far-flung destination like New Zealand we need to target tourists that don't have to travel so far to get here, because of the link between distance of travel and carbon footprint. We also want those who stay longer. 

“Rather than visitors that fly in and fly out, we’d seek to pursue markets with visitors that stay here longer, even more so because people who stay here longer tend to be more dispersed in their travel.

“That takes pressure, in theory, away from those destinations under so much stress from visitor numbers, and shares the benefits with communities which don't see many tourists.” 

Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It’s not going to be easy to get buy-in. Many operators will understandably be desperate for any kind of tourist to start coming back.

And growing international visitor numbers has been used in the past as a way to get us out of an economic crisis.

“Tourism is critically important to New Zealand,” Higham says. “Ten years ago, after the GFC, tourism was seen as a leader for the economic rebound. At the time, Prime Minister John Key became the Minister for Tourism and implemented some ambitious projects aimed at tourism leading the recovery.”

Higham says the Government may need to be involved again this time, but the focus should be on sustainable growth.

“This rewiring I’m talking about may have Government having a stronger hand shaping and influencing how this rebuild unfolds.”

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