Following the last two Daily Reports on the need for more investment in infrastructure to support the huge growth in tourism – more weekend reading stuff on the tourism picture – part of an article by AUT’s “The Spinoff” – featuring a similar tiny tourist town in the South Island with warnings of what can happen when demand from tourists exceeds the supply of amenities. Our local version of the Tekapo situation is the Tongariro crossing – a delightful tourist experience surrounded by chaos.
So how does that apply to little tourist towns like Turangi? Once upon a time the NZ Government paid overseas celebrities like Zane Grey to come here to fish the Tongariro as part of their investment strategy to attract tourists. (i.e. see following Government sponsored posters) Once upon a time they invested in hotels – remember all the THC hotels and others like the Tongariro Chateau (developed during the depression years) to attract tourists. Now the tourists have arrived and many more are anticipated they urgently need to renew that investment strategy every year (not just an election bribe?) – in what is now called “infrastructure”, or more biking and walking trails with more amenities.
It’s survival of the fittest in the NZ tourism industry, where some regions struggle for visitors while our biggest hotspots can hardly cope – all while our government resolutely rejects a tourist tax to help fix the places worst affected by the visitor onslaught. Little wonder New Zealanders increasingly feel that tourism is getting out of control, writes Peter Newport.
Sometimes things come down to a good old-fashioned, gloves-off, bareknuckle fight. That’s what’s shaping up between tourism bosses and local councils in one corner and the government in the other. It’s a scrap that could influence not only this year’s election but the future of our economy, our sense of national identity and our international reputation.
The problem is that governments all over the world see tourism as a cash cow. In our case tourism is especially tempting for the government to use as a bank because our second biggest export industry, actual cows, is subject to all sorts of overseas uncertainties and new competition that we can’t control.
So what is it that has our local tourism bosses and councils so unusually and dangerously upset? It’s the fact that government keeps taking from the tourism pot without giving enough back. After all we’re talking over 200,000 jobs and almost $35 billion in income. This morning the government announced a new $102 million Tourism Infrastructure Fund; it’s an open question how much that will help.
In a series of interviews with The Spinoff the people who actually run our domestic and international tourism industry explain why the wheels might fall off and what can be done to stop that happening.
Here’s a really important fact. Domestic tourism – that’s Kiwis travelling in New Zealand – is worth more ($20 billion) than international tourism ($14.5 billion), so not only is it our country, but we spend more than overseas visitors. In some ways we’ve been tricked into thinking that tourism is an exclusively overseas issue that only the “trust us” industry experts and government can understand.
Tourism is really about us and the story we want to tell the rest of the world. What follows is a series of portraits of our tourist centres.
Tekapo: A little church, surrounded by chaos
Tekapo is a small town near Aoraki Mount Cook on the main drag from Christchurch to Queenstown. Around a gazillion people stop here every day to take pictures around the famous little church, use the toilets, get petrol and buy a pie. The government famously believes in markets, so the national tourism investment in Tekapo is pretty much non-existent and various commercial tourism players have been encouraged to have a go. The result is a mess: used toilet paper in the town centre, mass market hotels aimed at overseas tour groups, and some restaurants that would reduce any decent chef to tears, let alone a tourist looking for a reasonable meal at a reasonable price. It’s a total disgrace.
It’s worth going into some detail because the rest of this story all relates back to Tekapo and what it represents.
I stayed there recently because I wanted to see the stars. Tekapo does host at least one decent business and that’s called Earth and Sky. It’s a bus trip, at night, up to the Mount John observatory to look through some big telescopes and learn some interesting stuff about planets and the universe. It’s expensive at $148 per person but still good value.
Tekapo is in the centre of the world’s biggest Dark Sky Reserve, although from the top of Mount John the town’s lights burn bright like a cheap used car lot trying to attract attention. Someone should get that fixed.
But what they also need to fix is everything else about Tekapo. The famous little church is surrounded by an untidy throng of camper vans and swarms of people taking pictures of themselves, the church and each other, in that order. You can hardly see the church through the chaos.
We stayed at Peppers Bluewater Resort – the only available room in town. I negotiated a Deluxe room down from $280 to $250 – no breakfast. No view either and certainly no hospitality.
Many guests seem to hide in their rooms at night with some instant noodles and cheap booze from the local Four Square. I had asked for a room with a view, but was told that those rooms were mainly reserved for overseas bus tours because “they like to stick together.”
I can’t help being honest so when I was asked by the cheery staff member on check out if I had a good stay, I said “No”. Out came front office manager Rod Kentish and to my surprise he could identify with my view of Tekapo. “Other people have said to me it’s a dog’s breakfast,” said Kentish. He blames the local council and says all his staff have to live 40 kilometres away in Fairlie because you can’t get a house locally for under $500,000 due to new residents wanting to turn it into a New Wanaka, just without the good stuff that Wanaka has.
I checked TripAdvisor and the views of Peppers in Tekapo were similar to my own. Too expensive for New Zealand travellers and a pretty underwhelming experience overall.
We left Peppers to the sound of screeching brakes and a cloud of tyre smoke as a camper van pulled out onto the main road without looking, almost killing us, a number of other drivers and two intrepid cyclists. I decided to call the council for a chat about Tekapo.
Garth Nixon is the community facilities manager for the Mackenzie District Council. He sounded as though he knew what he was doing but told me that there’s little money from their tiny ratepayer base to keep Tekapo clean and tidy, especially considering the onslaught of thousands of tourists every day.
He talked about some new government infrastructure loans, but of course that is all more debt for the council. He talked about the famous little church and sounded sad that it didn’t look as good in real life “as it does on TV”.
I asked if the council was thinking of keeping the camper vans and cars away from the church and Nixon said that was part of their plans, if they could find the money.
Big questions with some surprisingly honest and fascinating answers from people who might be expected to be fluent only in consultant-speak.
But first, proof that good tourism can be a win for everybody involved.
(……….For more google AUT Spinoff)