OPINION: Call for strategic “reset” for our tourism industry

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The economic benefits of tourism are often celebrated and the tourist sector regularly pats itself on the back for being a mainstay of the economy.

But for some time now Queenstown’s been obsessed with growth, totally forgetting to ask who wants it and what its purpose is.

We frequently hear about ‘‘the economy’’ as if it were independent of our society and our values.

But no independent measure exists for the value of the economy other than the value or benefit we derive from it.

The economy serves us and its value is measured by how well it does so.

GDP provides a partial measure of this value, but it would be foolish if we failed to also measure the degradation of our assets upon which that GDP depends, or to ignore the loss of enjoyment of public goods elsewhere in our economy.

It is a common mistake to confuse commerce with the economy.

Economics is much broader than commerce, measuring the value of all our activities including our enjoyment of public goods such as peace and quiet, our parks, beaches and natural environment generally.

Not all commercial growth is economic growth.

Much of the touted ‘‘economic benefit’’ of the explosive growth in New Zealand tourism has been achieved at significant cost to our enjoyment of valuable assets, and does not, therefore, represent net economic benefit or value.

Through Covid we’ve gained a rare moment of clarity to observe the sacrifices to our lifestyle and environment wrought by international mass tourism.

Our ears have awakened to birdsong rather than a cacophony of buses, helicopters and skydiving planes.

Our towns are now uncongested and habitable.

Our scenic picnic spots and beaches free from ‘‘freedom campers’’.

We can even visit some of our most scenic natural wonders without feeling we are in Disneyland or Heathrow Airport.

We have temporarily regained the NZ and the NZ lifestyle that had been stolen from us by mass tourism.

Some suggest ‘‘over-tourism’’ can be solved by upgrading infrastructure such as roads, carparks, toilets.

But this misses the fundamental self-contradiction upon which mass nature-based tourism is founded: NZ tourism is highly dependent on nature, but the clean green NZ environment is by its very nature incompatible with mass tourism.

This is the elephant in the room that the NZ tourism sector has steadfastly failed to address (apart from the other elephant, of course, the unsustainability of mass international travel in terms of fossil fuel consumption and climate change).

Infrastructure upgrades do not address this contradiction.

They may mitigate some adverse effects, but in other ways extra roads, toilets and carparks just further erode the value of our natural assets and do nothing to address problems such as noise pollution.

Where resources are limited and such adverse effects do exist, as is inherent with nature-based mass tourism, an unregulated market will result in an over-supply of tourism.

Where a sector of our economy adversely affects the quality of our lives, society has every right to regulate and limit that sector.

To date, Tourism NZ and Destination Queenstown have had free rein to grow their international market without constraints.

International passenger numbers at Queenstown Airport increased a staggering 1800% from 2005 to 2019.

No wonder the horrors of this flood washed over us like a seemingly-unstoppable tsunami.

But this perception of inevitability has changed under Covid.

Recently there have been fresh demands from the tourist sector for more public money to prop it up.

Public money should be spent on a re-set, not a re-play.

The irony of Covid is that it has given us the opportunity to do what we were too blind or too complacent to do before.

To determine our own economic destiny.

The challenge now is to re-set tourism at a level we are comfortable with, rather than to blindly rush back to the status quo.

There has to be gain from this pain.

Not unreasonably, we are averse to regulation.

But if we do not regulate tourist numbers, we face regulation on a much larger scale.

Many of the identified problems of tourism stem from a lack of environmental and aircraft regulation dating back to a pioneering era when resources were seemingly unlimited and our public goods were taken for granted.

In short, we have been blessed to enjoy a relatively unregulated environment on account of our low population density.

We therefore now face the choice of continuing to enjoy our relatively unregulated lives by controlling international tourist arrivals.

Alternatively, we must embark on a massive increase in environmental regulation.

Controlling tourist arrival numbers seems the preferable course of action.

Marc Scaife is a long-time Queenstowner and architectural designer