Paradise Lost: The millions of tourists who collectively constituted New Zealand’s largest single source of overseas funds will not be returning to these shores any time soon. For the foreseeable future, tourism and the multitude of businesses that serviced its voracious appetites, will be – to use a technical term – buggered.
LET’S BE HONEST, most sectors of the New Zealand economy will recover relatively quickly from the Covid-19 Pandemic. Our primary production sector and all the businesses that support it will bounce back. Our secondary industries will, in large measure, do the same. Indeed, pressures are already building for our industrial sector to step up to the challenge of increasing New Zealand’s economic resilience. Winston Peters is far from being the only person who regards the virtual elimination of this country’s import substitution capability in the 1980s and 90s as a singularly unwise policy.
But, the millions of tourists who collectively constituted New Zealand’s largest single source of overseas funds will not be returning to these shores any time soon. For the foreseeable future, tourism and the multitude of businesses that serviced its voracious appetites, will be – to use a technical term – buggered.
There simply aren’t enough New Zealanders with enough time and money to fill the tourist void. For the past twenty years we have struggled to keep pace with the demands of our international visitors. For every hotel we built; every new adventure we devised; every taste-bud-titillating restaurant we opened; there were always more and more customers to satisfy.
They came on vast cruise ships – floating towns that disgorged virtually their entire populations to spend, spend, spend for hours – sometimes days – at a time. All the cruise liners in the world, however, could not compete with the unending stream of airliners touching down at our international airports. Most of them packed full of passengers eager to enjoy their very own New Zealand experience.
Future historians will look back with wonder at the age of hyper-tourism. They will observe how cost-cutting innovations in aviation technology combined with the exploding numbers of newly enriched middle-class citizens from countries hitherto priced out of international travel to produce a surge in tourist numbers so great that the attractions they travelled thousands of miles to enjoy threatened to collapse under the sheer weight to their numbers. In the late twentieth century the New Zealand tourist industry looked forward to welcoming a million visitors a year. By 2020 it was gearing up to entertain five times that number.
But the Covid-19 Pandemic arrived instead and now this country finds itself with more tourist-oriented enterprises than can possibly be sustained by its tiny population.
The first and most obvious victim of the pandemic was the national carrier, Air New Zealand. Practically overnight, the airline lost 80 percent of its business. Of necessity the Government bailed it out. Located as they are at the bottom of the world, New Zealanders simply cannot do without their own airline. What other carrier, in the prolonged absence of the tourist hordes, would come so far, and at such cost, except Air New Zealand?
Sadly, not every carrier has a state to bail it out. From the hundreds of airlines traversing the skies in the age of hyper-tourism, the post-pandemic world will likely be serviced by no more than a few dozen. Fares will sky-rocket and the number of international tourists will plummet. The days of the golden tourist weather will be well and truly gone.
And what of the cruise ships? After the horrors of the Diamond and Ruby Princesses, the world may have to wait many years for the return of those floating towns and their wealthy pensioner passengers. Indeed, History may record the cruise ship craze as the last hurrah of the death-defying Baby Boom Generation. The cost of insuring themselves against involuntary quarantine should, alone, be more than enough to put off their children and grand-children!
The urgent problem remains, however, of how New Zealand fills the tourist void. What can possibly take the place of those millions of international travellers and their oh-so-precious hard currency? An expanded “bubble” encompassing the whole of Australia? It’s a nice thought, but hardly a practical one. Making it work – without reigniting Covid-19 – poses a truly daunting number of questions. What’s needed is a product the world is willing to buy: a product unique to New Zealand.
If the world can no longer come here by ship or plane, then why not invite it to tour the landscape of our imagination? Let’s invest in movies, television series, plays, music, novels, computer games. Encourage the world to partake of New Zealand’s unique creativity.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 May 2020.