OPINION: From pessimism to optimism and back again …


As we race towards a winter of welcoming Aussie wallets, and after attending an economic
diversification workshop I was wondering, what happened to reshaping our tourism industry?

Over the last several months, I’ve moved from pessimism about the future of tourism through to seeing the potential of a collaborative, systemic approach to making it work as different projects have started identifying new pathways.

The pre-Covid success of our tourism industry was extractive — stripping value from communities, overseas workers and our environment.

The result is most people are no richer, but now with a hangover of environmental and community degradation.

During Covid, people and government talked ‘reset’ and wanted to use the time and space to design something better.

But I want to go back a wee bit further, because productivity is integral to these discussions.

2011: Sir Paul Callahan’s speech, Strategy NZ Mapping Our Future.

A myth-busting speech delivering home truths about productivity.

Sir Paul calculated the revenue per needed employee to maintain GDP was $120,000 per job — don’t confuse this with what the employee is paid!

Tourism returned $80k per job, dairy $350k.

Compare this with Apple, $1.3 million per job.

Tourism was taking us backwards about $40k per year, per job.

Bluntly, tourism was making us poor.

Dairy was better, but had other costs.

April 4, 2021: Blogger Rowan Simpson revisited Paul Callahan’s speech and checked progress.

Not pretty.

We are now the hardest-working nation in the world for the least output per hour worked.

Neither tourism nor tech are producing the goods.

18 March, 2021: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton gave an address at the Otago University Tourism Policy school.

He was following up on his 2019 report, ‘Pristine, popular … imperilled?’, with a set of recommendations in a new report called ‘Not 100% but four steps closer to sustainable tourism’.

His first of four solutions was to impose a serious departure tax.

April 2021: The government finally releases the Tourism Futures Task Force Report.

Systemic thinking.



Rod Oram called it ‘‘brave, thoughtful and inspiring’’ in his Newsroom article.

The taskforce challenged the Sir Paul tourism productivity figures quoting a Tourism NZ report, Te Ohanga, which puts output per tourism employee in the core tourism business at $201,424.

This compares with the non-visitor economy output of $213,278 — so still lower than many sectors, and it doesn’t include supporting industries whose productivity sits at just $120k per fulltime-equivalent.

My pessimism dissipated along with a series of excellent explorations of issues and solutions, calling for systemic change.

The taskforce is clear that we follow it all, or not at all.

Somehow our government has missed that message and has stood down the taskforce, cherry-picking some actions rather than committing to the big, systemic change this industry needs.


Pessimism returns.

But there are signs of willingness to change.

Nearly 100 people signed up for the Back to Life regenerative tourism course, WAO Wanaka leads hard conversations, and Startup Queenstown Lakes and Queenstown’s council’s economic development unit celebrates emerging diversity.

My hope now is the tourism industry itself picks up the taskforce’s report and instigates the actions, including pressuring government for the necessary regulatory frameworks.

Alexa Forbes is a facilitator of undergrad and post-grad programmes in leadership and sustainability and an Otago Regional councillor