CAN WE RECONCILE THE PERCEIVED BENEFITS THAT TOURISM BRINGS
CAN WE RECONCILE THE PERCEIVED BENEFITS THAT TOURISM BRINGS TO NZ WITH THE CRITICAL ROLE LANDSCAPE PLAYS IN OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY AND COLLECTIVE FUTURE?
New Zealand is open for business, open for an increasing number of residents and wide open for tourists intrepid enough to have made the long journey here.
It is for many a symbol of success in terms of qualify of life, clean air and natural beauty. In comparison with many of the overcrowded, problem riddled parts of the world this may be true but for every visitor, for every luxury trip to our land and landscape, there is a price to pay that could ultimately compromise that beauty and comfort.
This article will shine a light on some of the major issues faced by New Zealand in the context of our part in the international and domestic tourism industry; issues such as increased infrastructure and dwelling requirements, ecological degradation, air travel and climate change.
WHAT IS OUR APPEAL?
Our visitors are almost by definition reasonably well healed as New Zealand is by no means a cheap place to get to or to stay in. These are not day trippers or the kind of package tourists seen in many other countries but rather those who stay for longer and are willing to spend their money around the country. Even those on a budget see touring our natural landscape as the major draw rather than locating to one resort or city.
If we look at NZ tourism and its relationship with our landscape, the two are linked in a way few other countries can claim. Our attractions, almost without exception, are our landscapes. We have no temples or skyscrapers, no pyramids or ancient relics; at least not in the way Angkor Wat, Manhattan or Machu Picchu are able to offer them. The diversity of New Zealand’s physical landscapes are what we put in the glossy brochures and on the websites of travel companies all over the world. However pleasant they may be visitors do not come to see Auckland’s harbour bridge or the stunning architecture of New Plymouth, they come to see the spectacular mountains and valleys, sample our beaches and shop in our cities. What we have is not unique but it is rare.
These are not day trippers or the kind of package tourists seen in many other countries but rather those who stay for longer and are willing to spend their money around the country.
FACTS, FIGURES AND FUTURES
It is perhaps worth looking at some facts and figures in relation to what the trade-off looks like in terms of the increase in international tourism, or what it is we have to lose or gain in dollar terms. New Zealand Statistics recently published the following statistics in relation to the year to November 2015:
Tourism generated a direct contribution to GDP of $10.6 billion, or 4.9 percent of GDP.
The indirect value added of industries supporting tourism generated an additional $7.9 billion for tourism, or 3.6 percent of GDP.
168,012 people were directly employed in tourism (6.9 percent of the total number of people employed in New Zealand), an increase of 5.0 percent from the previous year (2014).
However, as this essay will attempt to illustrate, a more slippery price to work out is the hefty bill in terms of environmental impact on the very thing we have to offer, our landscape.
There is perhaps an inherent contradiction in our human desire to explore and to see different, far off lands. The more we encourage it, and encourage it we must for political, economic and social imperatives, the more we risk losing the very thing we promote. Given the relative untouched beauty of NZ, and its marketing as such to overseas visitors, and given the fragility of our ecosystems, ours is a tricky and pressing problem to solve. Also, by looking inwardly at what NZ can do to remedy or mitigate unwanted environmental consequences, it becomes immediately obvious that that effort can only be sustained through being part of a global response to environmental degradation and climate change.
We can, and will, turn to any number of examples of other countries who’s tourism not only threatens the health and wellbeing of their domestic environments and populations, but is also symptomatic of the wider, global issues what will affect not only those counties on an individual level, but eventually affect those countries who have had none of the benefits that particular tourism brought.
WHAT IS AT STAKE ECONOMICALLY?
The money brought in by tourism to NZ has obvious immediate benefits, not just to direct tourism operators but as can be seen from the illustrations below the trickle-down effect in terms of indirect value; support industries that cater for the increase in domestic expenditure for example. Our balance sheets now demand this level of overseas spending, without it the consequences for many, particularly those outside major metropolitan centres could be dire.
The sheer numbers of visitors are impressive and are often used by media and others to point to our successes, for example:
300,500 visitor arrivals in November 2015, up 11 percent from November 2014.
The biggest increase was in visitors from China, up 9,600 (35 percent) from November last year, who were overwhelmingly holidaymakers.
In the November 2015 year, visitor arrivals reached a record 3.09 million, up 9 percent from the previous year. Australia contributed 1.32 million visitors, China 344,900, and the United States 240,000
(NZ Statistics Nov 2015)
EMERGENT MARKETS – CHINA AND THE FUTURE OF CONSUMPTION
So, visitors came in their millions, took our tours, ate in our restaurants, stayed in our hotels, saw our fjords and climbed our mountains. However, those statistics also reveal another, startling figure. Overall our visitor numbers have increased for year on year for decades and the traditional markets such as Australia, the UK, Canada etc. all trend upwards; however, the emergent economy of China is fuelling a huge growth in travel and consumption and the infrastructure and footprint needed, not just by NZ but by the global community, is enormous. When one considers that due to political and economic conditions an additional billion+ individuals from emergent economies may have access to a level of consumption previously unheard of, the cost simply of sustaining that kind of growth is potentially staggering.
This is of course simply handpicking one particular story out of the general trend for travel and consumption yet it highlights the pressures being put upon finite resources. When conditions allow, countries and individuals increase their spending, of which tourism forms a part. As access to information, business wealth and cheap(er) transport increases, so does the desire to experience what the world has to offer.
Are we therefore left in the perverse position whereby reducing traditional, consumption based tourism, or at least altering it away from mass travel is in fact in our collective interests?
Few would argue for a reduction in tourist numbers, or perhaps more accurately couldn’t argue without seeming to be at fundamental odds with our national mania for economic advancement and to punch above our weight in terms of international prestige.
Who fails to smile inwardly when reading slow-news-day articles proclaiming New Zealand to be the 3rd, 7th or 12th best place to visit or to live? Yet by failing to press for a more coherent tourism strategy based on putting ecological health first as part of a global response, might we be unwittingly adding to what has been coined by ecologist Garrett Hardin as the Tragedy of the Commons?
This stunning natural masterpiece called Aotearoa is the one thing we all have in common, it is our common bond and it is our common landscape. Crucially we also share another global commons, that of air, sea, flora and fauna.
By having these commons we collectively and individually take from them; both as a visitor and as a resident, because there is simply not enough incentive for us to stop doing so. There is pressure to drive an economy and provide for our families, as there is a drive to consume both by foreign visitors and by domestic tourists. Yet this pressure has the very real potential to destroy the very thing we hold so dear.
We vote in governments and by doing so we hand over responsibility to them to be marshals. ‘Here’ we say, ‘you take care of it, make laws and keep things 100% Pure and leave me to run my business (that exists to service the tourism industry)’. That simply is not an answer to the problems we face as a country or as a global community.
Sustainable or eco-tourism may be buzz words but do we need to now look beyond those slogans to understand the impacts on infrastructure and inevitable encroachments into our landscape?
There are several initiatives for tourism operators to run green businesses and there have been successes. We have The Tourism Energy Efficiency Programme and Qualmark Green and while both of these are admirable initiatives and to be applauded as such, I would argue that they are a tiny effort when the reality of climate change and the full effects of mass tourism on our landscape are truly considered.
When sustainability is able to be sold as an economic advantage, for example lower power bills or tax incentives, things begin to gain traction. However, simply reducing power bills and acting as responsibly as good economics will allow is not the answer to far wider issues if we are seeing more and more visitors? Simply getting here has a not insignificant impact on the world and us as New Zealanders. In other words, we run the risk of irreparably ruining our commons.
We must also of course include domestic tourism in our assessment. As we grow as a nation, we add to this ecological burden with each car, boat and bach. Domestic tourism expenditure increased 6.3 percent ($1.1 billion) to $18.1 billion (Statistics NZ 2015).
Worth noting is that according NZ Statistics New Zealand had its 16th consecutive record annual net gain of migrants in the November 2015 year (63,700). It resulted from 120,900 migrant arrivals (a record high) and 57,200 migrant departures. An annual net gain of migrants from Australia resulted from fewer New Zealand citizen departures and more New Zealand and non-New Zealand citizen arrivals.
Apart from natural increases in population from those already here, these incoming migrants will also wish to be tourists in their own new country.
Waiheke Island Sculpture Trail - neat slices of sea, hills and sky to be consumed?However, simply reducing power bills and acting as responsibly as good economics will allow is not the answer to far wider issues if we are seeing more and more visitors?
OVERSEAS: PARALLELS, LESSONS & PERCEPTIONS
An interesting relationship may perhaps be drawn between the way in which New Zealand may be heading, towards increasing levels of development and infrastructure, particularly along our coastline, and the experiences of places such as Spain’s Costa del Sol and other, similar northern Mediterranean resorts. Development of Spain’s Mediterranean coastal resorts has exploded in scale over the second half of the twentieth century as affordable air travel and new cultural horizons fuelled a new form of tourism (sound familiar?). The impact on the Spanish landscape has been profound and irreversible and yet visitor number have refused to decline. A paradox therefore exists, on one hand the destination is acknowledged to be altered far from the thing that originally attracted the visitors, yet they continue to come. Perhaps this paradox is useful in defining the way humans perceive travel, basically we are inherently selfish and willing to accept consequences in order to relax or sample new experiences.
As has been noted that there is a “disjuncture between the abstract... ’environment’ which... environmentalists talk about and the more embodied, relational environment relevant to tourists” (Caletrio 2010). In other words, tourists may initially come to New Zealand to visit its natural beauty but once they form an emotional attachment to it, perhaps spanning many years and different generations and/or friends (as is the case with the Spanish Costas) the appeal of the natural beauty can be overlooked in favour of essentially having a holiday away from the stresses of everyday like. The fact that the landscape is degraded by this expansion in numbers would seem, taking the Spanish experience as a lesson in a maturing tourist market as an example, not to be of paramount importance.
The Spanish Costas, and indeed the Australian east coast, may be salutary lessons for New Zealand to heed. Do we take the dollars and build, knowing that the product can, and probably will, become less appealing and valuable yet paradoxically attractive to increasing numbers who seek the cheap and cheerful holiday experience next to the sea? Or do we limit those numbers by taxing tourist industries, air travel etc. until they are the preserve of only the very few?
Arguably an identical phenomena occurs domestically in New Zealand with the annual pilgrimage to the family bach; it is not necessarily the specific appeal of the landscape so much as the proximity of friends and family that is a big part of the draw.
Further to this, evidence gathered (Franklin, Lury, & Stacey, 2000, et al) would suggest that in the eyes of domestic tourists, developments such as marinas and promenades have actually ‘improved’ the landscape and allowed safe access to what many perceive as the truly natural, spiritually refreshing and necessary element of their holiday; the sea. Of course, any damage done to sea life is not immediately visible from a deckchair!
CLIMATE DISRUPTION & TRAVEL
‘In future, historians (if there are any) will look back on this curious spectacle taking shape in the early 21st century. For the first time in human history, humans are facing the significant prospect of severe calamity as a result of their actions – actions that are battering our prospects of decent survival.’ (Noam Chomsky 2015).
It is not over-stating the issue to say that globally we are at an ecological tipping point. One thing that seems to loom increasingly over this argument is air travel and yet “climate disruption, once a mere hypothesis, is now empirically established…….. What were recently deemed worst case and distant scenarios are now happening... In either case, be it ruthless mitigation or revolutionary adaptation, high-consuming societies will have to operate on dramatically less material and energy in the foreseeable future.” (de Young 2012).
We are facing a new energy reality which will affect every part of our lives and although taking holidays will be part of this, arguably we will have other more pressing issues such as food and clean water security to worry about. As has been noted “these circumstances and ensuing effects are, like gravity, not negotiable. They are not altered by political debate or market forces, nor will denial or inattention make them disappear.” (de Young 2012).
And yet there is presently very little that would encourage the average person, this author included, to give up things like air travel. Authors and thinkers such as Chris Watson, Kate Andrews et al have hypothesised various ways of mitigating the issues surrounding air travel, for example using trains, harnessing digital technology and giving up air travel for business. They do so in a tone that avoids bashing the airline industry, western excesses or rich global businesses yet I would argue most, if not all, will fail to solve the problems New Zealand faces in bringing the nations of the world to Franz Josef Glacier.
Collectively and individually we are simply able to overcome thoughts of climate disaster by concentrating on the here and now of getting to our business meeting/holiday/family cheaply and quickly. This is the elephant in the room and leads us round in a neat circle to where we began.
New Zealand has a unique and potentially world-leading ability to deal with this. Our isolation and relative lack of political interference is our biggest weapon. The fact that so little (again, relatively speaking) has been sacrificed to the gods of development, means that we can be agile and nimble in our thinking.
We are facing a new energy reality which will affect every part of our lives and although taking holidays will be part of this, arguably we will have other more pressing issues such as food and clean water security to worry about.
NEW ZEALAND’S DIALOGUE - CONCLUSION
Discussions on how land should be treated form a central part of contemporary New Zealand landscape and political narrative. That is to our advantage as we are conducting this dialogue in a period of increased awareness of the cost of getting things wrong and perpetuating injustice.
We might perhaps benefit from a radical or revolutionary change in strategy. A move away from trying to design better ways of getting here and more luxurious experiences to offer our guests (in other words better things), to a more human centred experience.
The truth may therefore be a very bitter, if not impossible, pill to swallow. It may be that in relation to a long term, responsible guardianship of our landscape we cannot support tourism in its current form. One seemingly obvious answer is that we demand something tangible back from our visitors in addition to their dollars; more of a two way trade rather than a simple supply and consume relationship.
As today we take it for granted that we can fly to the Himalayas or holiday in apartments in Wanaka, in a way previous generations could not have hoped for, future generations may need to take it for granted that the nature of a holiday involves negotiating a two way trade with the destination as part of the experience.
There is perhaps a certain delicious post-colonial irony in that viewing our landscape as a sacred and immutable living entity, directly connected to disparate landscapes of far off lands, is the only way to save it and ourselves from grave near-future consequences.
For all their value, instead of simply designing a new version of Spanish Costas or the Australian Gold Coast, can we come up with an alternative that simply makes this old model obsolete? Difficult but necessary.
Chomsky, N. (2015). Because we say so. Penguin UK. (p97)De Young and Princen (Eds) (2012) The Localization Reader - Adapting to the Coming Downshift. MIT Press, US.
Caletrio, J. (2010). Tourism, Landscape Change and Critical Thresholds. Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 28, no 1, pp, 313-316, 2011. Elsevier Ltd.
Watson, C. Beyond Flying. (2014). Green books, UIT Cambridge Ltd.