OPINION: Killing the adventure capital

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Charlotte Mill is director of Property Management Queens-town Ltd, which owns Villa del Lago

Queenstown is no ordinary resort, it’s a special resort. You’ve heard it before, as actively marketed by Destination Queenstown, “Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world”.

There are more than 100 adventure tourism activities, and as Queenstown.com says, “with this title comes a plethora of adrenaline-inducing, heart-stopping and hair-raising activities all designed to make your stay unforgettable”. What kind of tourists come and do all these activities and keep these businesses going?

A common sentiment we keep hearing from Queenstown Lakes District Council, as well as many ratepayers, is we need more “high-end”, “high-quality” tourists, “less riff-raff”. This was echoed at a recent Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, where New Zealand’s ‘innovator of the year’ Ian Taylor said “NZ needs to be a premium tourist destination”.

So what does this really mean? Who are premium tourists, and what do they like to do? Do they go white water rafting, on a Canyon Swing, a bungy jump, to the World Bar, take a mountain bike ride down from the gondola, go in the Hydro Attack, or try a jetpack? Probably not.

There are a lot of people wanting to change the face of tourism in the district, but would this new client base support Queenstown’s special place as ‘adventure capital of the world’?

We need to be careful not to overfill Queenstown, but we also need to be careful not to ruin the experiences that make Queenstown special. European and North American resorts such as St Moritz and Aspen have been successful at wooing premium tourists. These locations have become so premium that locals and workers have to live miles outside of the towns. These resorts are bustling full of premium tourists during peak seasons, and ghost towns in the shoulder and off-peak seasons.

Premium tourists don’t like to visit their destinations outside optimal seasonal periods. Premium tourists don’t go to bars and do all the crazy fun stuff that we have to offer. Aspen’s summer activities are boasted as “hiking, horseback riding and fishing”. We have so much more to offer than that.

If we push up the cost of staying in Queenstown by 10 per cent a night with an accommodation-based visitor levy (bed tax), and take out $40 million from visitors’ discretionary expenditure per year, there will surely be consequences. A 10 per cent increase in accommodation costs will put many budget-conscious travellers off coming to Queenstown in favour of cheaper destinations such as Japan for skiing and Bali for summer holidays.

This is already happening without a 10 per cent cost increase, and will only accelerate if we become even more pricey.

If we don’t put them off completely, it will mean shorter stays and more campervans. If budget-conscious visitors have to spend more on their accommodation or stay for a shorter period, they will spend less on the iconic “adrenaline-inducing, heart-stopping and hair-raising activities” and bars.

If we put off the budget-conscious visitor in favour of a more premium visitor, our plethora of adventure activities will disappear, and Queenstown will no longer be what it has so successfully become.

It’s time the owners of bars and adventure activity operations join the debate on what kind of tourists we need and how to fund infrastructure in Queenstown.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa is recommending the government gives local government a percentage of the GST paid by international visitors. This is the most sensible, fair and equitable funding solution. If this cannot be achieved, a much smaller, broad-based visitor levy collected by everyone involved in tourism could deliver the same result, keep all our businesses alive and see us retain our adventure capital of the world for the foreseeable future.