Thursday 7 May 2020

Our Hometown.

Bitter Sweet Song Of Farewell:  Bruce Springsteen's achingly nostalgic ballad "My Hometown" chronicles the decline of a US textile town. New Zealand's tourism industry is poised to become yet another victim of the same ruthless forces of globalisation: "These jobs are going boys, and they ain't coming back."

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND: that’s the number of jobs likely to be lost as New Zealand’s tourist industry collapses. Very few of those involved in the accommodation, refreshment and entertainment of international visitors are open to the idea that most of their enterprises are gone for good. Many appear to believe that domestic tourists will fill the gaping hole in their business plans. Others are counting on Winston Peters’ trans-Tasman bubble to save the industry. Such hopes are almost certainly vain. As the foreman in Bruce Springteen’s classic song “My Hometown” puts it: “These jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.”

Those tourism jobs, though, they’re not like the jobs in Springsteen’s soon-to-be-closed textile mill. The factory jobs of the post-war boom underpinned a whole way of life. Unionised and well-paid, they conferred dignity and security on a working-class that was still conscious of its power and purpose. Those jobs paid for houses, cars, household appliances and holidays at grandad’s batch or a seaside holiday camping ground. Those jobs were solid and they made the people who did them solid too. When the factories closed and the solid livelihoods they provided simply melted into air, New Zealand’s proud but fragile working-class culture evaporated along with them.

When all the hotels and restaurants constructed to accommodate the millions of international visitors who poured into New Zealand during the age of hyper-tourism shut down, their workforces will simply scatter. Mostly young, mostly untethered, and mostly flexible – in  the approved neoliberal fashion – they will suffer, struggle, adapt and survive. The vast majority of these hospitality workers will experience the collapse of their industry as a purely individual misfortune. The mass unionism of 1936-1991, which made the closure of any workplace a powerful collective experience (and generally resulted in some form of redundancy compensation) has not been a feature of working-life in the private sector for quarter-of-a-century.

Overwhelmingly, the collapse of hyper-tourism in New Zealand will be a small-business tragedy. These enterprises were the Remora fish who fed off the massive shark of international travel. Their fate will be the fate of all businesses born out of the extraordinary expansion of global markets which has defined the economic history of the past fifty years. Having taken advantage of global forces over which they exercised not the slightest control, they now find themselves caught up in an equally uncontrollable, exogenously generated, sequence of global events. Sadly, there is almost nothing that the small business owners can do to prevent these new global realities from smashing their enterprises and shattering their dreams.

Naturally, they will turn to the Government for assistance, even though the Government is almost as powerless to redirect the global tide as the small business-person.

The brute facts of the Covid-19 catastrophe toll over the tourist industry like a funeral bell.

The unprecedented affordability of global travel – largely the effect of cost-saving innovations in the aviation industry – cannot endure. The Pandemic is destroying the world’s airlines. When it ends, the number of carriers will have shrunk significantly. Where there were once hundreds, experts are predicting that there will be only a few dozen airlines. That means fewer flights and higher fares. The number of international travellers will plummet. New Zealand will find itself in possession of a tourist infrastructure several times too large for its dramatically reduced visitor traffic.

There is nothing any government can do about this. No politician can conjure up millions of tourists out of thin – or even smoky Australian – air. Covid-19 has transformed those streams of passengers pouring off the airliners and cruise ships from prized spenders into potentially dangerous carriers of deadly diseases. Borders will become a lot harder to penetrate. Foreigners will no longer receive such a warm welcome.

Not that the foreigners will be much inclined to come anyway. It is a universal feature of economic crises that the ordinary person in the street becomes extremely risk averse and reluctant to spend. People become very careful with their money. Having being thoroughly drenched by the rainy day overhead, they immediately begin saving for the largest possible umbrella to protect them during the next. From seeing one last carefree hurrah aboard a cruise ship as their bound and due, the Baby Boom Generation may even start thinking about the generations coming after them.

Nothing politicians can do about that, either.

It all sounds very grim, and it will be, but only for a while. That strange combination of creativity, thrill-seeking and greed, which propels the entrepreneur towards new ventures will soon respond to new incentives and new opportunities. It is here that politicians can do something. In fact, it is here that they can do quite a lot. Governments can help with finance and advice; they can help with the imparting of new skills to new workforces; they can build affordable homes and lodgings for new workers to live in; they can re-empower those workers with the right to organise and participate in the new ventures – growing into new industries – that, phoenix-like, will rise out of the ashes of the old.

New Zealanders were surely made for nobler occupations that making beds, cooking food, pouring drinks and providing thrills and entertainment for wealthy foreigners. It is one of the great paradoxes of the Covid-19 Pandemic, that the places so many millions travelled so far around the world to see only revealed their true selves when the tourists stopped coming. Fish swam in the fresh clear water of Venice’s canals. The Taj Mahal glittered under azure skies. And we, in our bubbles, looked into the faces of the people we loved and realised for the first time in a long time how very beautiful they were. There is so much more to see in our hometowns when, like the little boy riding with his father in Springsteen’s song, we are given the opportunity to “take a good look around”.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 7 May 2020.


Nick J said...

I just got caught up with the failure of the airline industry. Flights cancelled, diminished, then huge price hikes. The scary thing is that NZ is at the end of the line, truly isolated.

If our national carrier fails to deliver Kiwis to the world at a fair price the average Kiwi will be truly denied access to the world by price alone. As it is the rich won't care, they can pay. Affordable "Cattle class" will go, planes will become smaller with luxury seats only.

I remember when steam ship companies delivered Kiwis to the world, OE began with 6 weeks at sea. Trips to Sydney 3 days across the Tasman. The cruise industry just went belly up, maybe we need to buy a boat or two.

Simon Cohen said...

So obviously you have never gone overseas as a tourist Chris.

Kat said...

Gone the same way as the demand for wool and the demise of the sheep stations. We can be assured though something in some other form will takes its place. The pope may have been be onto it when he declared last month that mother nature is sending us all a message.

Geoff Fischer said...

Kia ora Chris
To me hospitality is an obligation not an industry. For that reason I would not be altogether unhappy to see the "tourism and hospitality industry" fade away.
However it is easy for the pundits to say of tourism, as they once did of manufacturing, that it is a sunset industry which should be allowed to die.
Many sons and daughters of the manufacturing workers who were thrown to the wolves by the fifth Labour government now work in skilled occupations related to tourism. They are engineers, builders, mechanics, ecologists and cultural performers as well as chefs, waiters and cleaners. They build, maintain and operate gondolas, snow making machines, jet boats, white water rafts, kayaks, mountain bikes, helicopters, buses, ferries and bungy jumps.
They preserve the culture of whakairo, raranga and kapa haka at Whakarewarewa, and in the new purpose-built Mitai and Tamaki villages. People in Murupara and Minginui whose lives were once built around a vertically integrated forest and sawmilling industry are now horse trekking, hunting and fishing guides and environmental tourism operators.
So this present Labour government should not have a cavalier disregard for those who will lose employment in tourism as a result of Covid-19. There is no manufacturing sector to speak of to offer them refuge. Labour saw to that in the years following 1984.
Tourism workers are good people. Even those who make a living from cleaning the BnBs, hotels and motels are intelligent and conscientious workers.
We knew that tourism as an industry was exposed to economic, environmental and social change. For many of us it was never the ideal choice of employment. But thirty six successive years of neo-liberal government left our people with few other options.
The fifth Labour government decided that the destruction wrought upon a large section of the working class was acceptable collateral damage in the heroic battle to save capitalism. The people begged to differ. If the seventh Labour government chooses to go the same way as the fifth it may face even more momentous consequences.

oneblokesview said...

I dont know what you are smoking/drinking while under house arrest. But has made you very negative (and a little patronising).

I write this from Cambodia whilst waiting for flights to resume back to NZ.
So I have not been subject to all the Kiwi fear & worry that has been pumped up by media and others, and is overwhelming rational thought in NZ.

International air travel will start again. New Operators will find niche markets with pilots who have not been unionised(A Quantas AirBUS 787 Captain gets got more than $700,000 AUD a year, because of unionisation).

Pushing the hurrah that Unionisation gave the Post war manufacturing boom wages is some rose tinted glass observation methinks.

Unfortunately I was around in the 50s and 60s. The Country was heavily controlled. Free enterprise was a joke. Remember new cars were only available if you had overseas funds to buy same, lucky farmers when Wool was a pound a pound. Going overseas. You had to apply to the Reserve Bank for foreign currency, it was not always approved.
The Government had subsidized everything from milk, to butter and other staples.
Dont get me wrong I had wonderful teenage years back then mainly because we were free to do whatever without heavy government regulation(I am thinking all the health & safety BS).

Have faith in human innovation.
Already Covid tests are available with a pin prick finger test and result in 10 minutes from a small machine.
You will note that Emirates have already started flights from Bahrain using this system prior to boarding. Covid free. Welcome aboard.

With work on spit testing in the works, its probably that you will spit in a tube at checkin as you present your passport.

So dont bury the tourism industry yet. Its only asleep, not in a life threatening long term coma.

John Hurley said...

Have they trashed the welfare system?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Remember new cars were only available if you had overseas funds to buy same"
Yeah, I remember that. I also remember that my dad had a good job, and his wages alone put food on the table. But even after the restrictions were eased, he still couldn't afford a new car – neither can I today.

Tom Hunter said...

That strange combination of creativity, thrill-seeking and greed, which propels the entrepreneur towards new ventures will soon respond to new incentives and new opportunities.

As always with Leftists, other key factors for entrepreneurs are ignored in your world of a government that only does good, huge, positive things.

What you miss is the most basic thing desired by entrepreneurs from government: a high degree of certainty in government plans, at least in the near future

It's tough enough coping with and balancing all the things that go into a business - all the carefully laid plans that have to be modified quickly, sometimes drastically, or even scrapped in the face of market changes. All the things both little and big that change almost daily.

But it becomes so much worse when, in the back of your mind, you have no idea what's coming down the road from government in terms of rules and regulations, taxes, interest rates and general bureaucracy that often is based more on some local official's whims than the black-letter law that government thought it had passed.

And like any eco-system, these effects often take years or decades to become apparent. I would suggest that NZ's hopeless lack of per person productivity - which shows up in us working more hours per year just to keep up with the Aussies - is down to the fact that, for all our politicians bloviating about entrepreneurs and the like, we simply have not provided an environment of government laws and regulations that's stable enough to compensate for all those other market factors.

As a result our entrepreneurial class has steadily dwindled as such people have given up and fled overseas over the decades.

And that's before we get to this disaster. What trust has any entrepreneur got that this won't happen again soon, with COVID-25 or whatever? And there is no hope that a National government would be different. They may be picking away now at various scabs of technical failure, but they supported it all from the start, craven cowards that they are.

So perhaps we will see a return to the world you so love: the NZ of 1960's/70's where one slogged along to a dull, boring job in some great government approved corporation like Fletchers or some godforsaken government department like the MOW or NZ Rail, all of it enabled by government micro-management whose final exemplar was RD Muldoon. I vividly recall those end days in the early 1980s, before Rogernomics.

I and every one of my peers hated it all; we hated it even more when we got summer jobs in those places and saw our futures laid out before us in promotions from Level PL6 (Programmer Learner) to Level PL7. And time and again, when asked why we would not turn those summer jobs into permanent positions, they could never understand our responses. In fact they looked at us with incomprehension. It's one of the reasons so many of us fled on the big OE and never returned, or did so only when we were married with kids and had piled up enough money that we could be somewhat shielded from the Kiwi disease.

Nick J said...

Kat, things do come back. We have thought our economic life as a state of progress, constant advances and replacement. Wool is in for a comeback, for millenia it was what we wore to stay warm. The cold isn't going anywhere but the oil that supports synthetic fibres is finite. Thankfully grass grows and sheep breed.

Kat said...

Nick J, keep that optimism. I would love to see the sheep stations back, I used to prowl around the Molesworth when I was a kid in the 50's & 60's, not that many sheep by then mainly cattle and horses. Now the Awatere valley produces some very fine wines.

greywarbler said...

oneblokesview - I didn't know that Roger Douglas had popped over to Cambodia - he was in the news just recently. But this comment seems very much like the light-hearted stuff put about as he and his mates threw the baggage of old New Zealand's economy and unions into the deep blue sea.

greywarbler said...

Tom Hunter You should have stayed away i think. You must be even more disappointed at the inadequate way that NZ is run now, and it's parlous state than those awful days post WW2 with broken down returned servicemen settled into the quiet life, not working too hard. Things had to change, and it's a pity you couldn't have stuck around to progress the place.
You have had the best out of globalisation. But social mobility was possible in those days. The individual like you with your eye on your own pathway can get to the top still but the possibilities are helped by having a well-connected daddy and mummy.