OPINION: Young travellers and the re-imagination of tourism

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I love Italy, and have returned no less than five times in the 20-plus years since first  isiting as a 24-year-old in the 1990s.

The country left a lasting impression on my younger self.

I’m sure many people can relate after travelling in their youth.

Many young visitors to our shores share this same feeling about Aotearoa.

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash wants to ‘reset’ tourism, and I wholeheartedly agree.

The next two years is the perfect time as the industry re-emerges from the ashes of Covid.

However, while our government has been big on visionary statements, we’re yet to see detail of what the future of tourism will look like, and how we get there.

So, let’s consider one possibility.

Pre-Covid, international tourism funnelled $17.5 billion of off-shore money into our  economy, equivalent to $3400 per resident.

This foreign currency gets distributed throughout our nation’s restaurants, cafes, and dairies, creating thousands of jobs and raising GST along the way.

There has been much said about ‘over-tourism’, and there are two similar but contrasting views on this: either our existing infrastructure is not adequate to handle the four million
international visitors each year, or visitor numbers are too high for our infrastructure to cope.

What if we could increase tourist spend while decreasing visitor numbers?

Can we be smarter in the approach to future tourism?

Tourism Industry Aotearoa boss Chris Roberts believes so, suggesting we need to change the narrative away from a ‘high-value’ toward a ‘high-quality’ tourist, stating: ‘‘A high-quality visitor could be someone who comes here outside of the peak period, visits regions who don’t see very many visitors, really is coming for an authentic experience, has a light carbon footprint.’’

Minister Nash has previously stated his view of ‘high value’ does not necessarily mean ‘high net worth’, so there is scope to consider what would represent high value or quality.

Surely an international tourist who spends $5000 over three months, getting much of this into regional areas in off-seasons, is more valuable than the tourist who arrives for 10 days in summer and spends $2000 ticking off a handful of typical destinations.

Spreading the volume of both visitors and spend more evenly throughout the country and seasons creates a more sustainable, higher-quality industry.

The coming 10 years in tourism is going to focus on sustainability, demanded by the eco-conscious, under-35 youth travel market.

This means not only managing visitor growth, but becoming more eco-friendly and creating systems whereby visitors to our shores can reduce their carbon footprint.

Tourism bodies need to lead on this, and government must create the platforms to make it possible.

Now is the time to integrate new sustainability initiatives into businesses as we slowly restructure while international tourism returns.

If we want to change the way international visitors travel our country, we should consider the experiences of the youth.

They build deep connections to the first countries they visit, which brings them back again
and again later in life.

I’m not talking about freedom or responsible campers, I’m talking of independent travellers using alternative transport to visit places off the well-beaten track in search of life-changing experiences.

Studies have shown the under-35s spend just $280 less than the over-35s per trip, but when accounting for them spending much less on accommodation, they spend more into
different areas of the economy.

The youth travel deeper into the regions, spend money in the shoulder and off seasons, and are three times more likely to undertake adventure activities.

They are more connected to the environment, conscious of their carbon footprint, and in search of a fulfilling cultural experience.

And they are more likely to return later in life than the over-35s.

These are the qualities and ideals Chris Roberts is suggesting we target in our visitors.

We must engage with the youth visitors in a way that encourages them to repeatedly return in the future, so they bring back these same ideals with their own families, or perhaps friends later in retirement — longer stays, wider distribution of regional spend,
off-season travel, and connection to our environment and culture.

But this should not be restricted to the youth; we should encourage this type of travel across all age demographics as tourism recovers.

There is lifetime value in the international youth market that can be harnessed to drive the industry for years to come as they return multiple times and share their experiences with
friends who adopt a similar travel style.

Perhaps pursuing the ‘high-quality’ tourist may help reduce visitor numbers, yet increase total revenue spend all while providing an eco-friendlier experience along the way.

Government and the tourism industry need to begin collaborating to make this a reality for the future.

For now, I look forward to returning to Italy a seventh time, in a couple of years, to celebrate my 50th with a platter of cheese, breads, oils and a bottle of fine montepulciano by theshores of Lake Como, a beautiful part of the country I am yet to visit.

Brett Duncan is the owner of Adventure Queenstown and Adventure Q2 hostels and a board member of the New Zealand Backpacker Youth and Adventure Tourism Association