Being seen in dollar terms cheapens the experience, says Thomas Bywater.
It’s no secret that New Zealand is a tourist’s nation. Parts of the country will bend over the backwards to cater to the almighty tourist dollar — and even if you have no direct links to leisure or hospitality, according to Tourism New Zealand, you are $34b indebted to the tourism trade. You owe it to the rest of the country to keep calm and keep up the green-and-friendly-Middle-earth schtick.
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Grin and bear the Milwaukee dentist’s anecdotes on the roads to “Row-tee-rower”.
Forgive the family of trampers who cut across your bonnet for the last parking space on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. They’ll be gone by the end of the week.
But if there’s one type of tourist for which stifled resentment turns to open scorn, it would be the cashless backpacker.
A couple of months back, two hapless backpackers found themselves at the centre of a Kiwi media-storm. Well — as much of a media-storm as New Zealand could muster before it lost its puff and attentions turned to the real storm, Gita. But for the best part of a week, Anna Karg and Enoch Orious (aka Jamie Burfoot, of Westlake Boys’ High School) were the most notorious backpackers in all New Zealand.
They had planned to travel the length of the country cash-free. Living from table scraps, dumpster-diving and charity work, their dream turned sour after an Instagram post of a Wellington soup kitchen drew unwanted attention. After being labelled “freeloaders” in newspapers across the country — including this one — their Facebook page @freefrommoneynz was promptly taken down. Perhaps the idealistic travellers were naive as to quite how thrilled Wellingtonians would be about seeing their charity soup kitchens used for visitors to travel Aotearoa on the cheap.
Though they were donating their work to the areas they were visiting, it would appear the value of tourism is still measured in cash rather than in kind deeds.
What does this say about the role of travellers?
It used to be that travel was a way to widen your horizons, meet new people and see how things are done in their neck of the woods. None of these well-worn cliches are easily quantifiable as a percentage of GDP, but this is the part of tourism that everyone can understand.
It cheapens the experience to think that, as a traveller you will only be appreciated in terms of spending power; that you are being welcomed as an arm of the global redistribution mechanism that can be charged a 12 per cent gratuity on meals.
Wherever there’s an exchange rate there will always be room for awkward encounters — whether that is the guilt of travelling through a country with an equivalent of a local’s annual wage stuffed into your fanny pack, or the eye-watering condescension you receive from Scandinavian serving staff after you remortgage your house to eat in their restaurant. Everything is relative, and we should be free to spend our leisure time and holiday pay as we see fit. Okay, Noma?
What makes these remote and beautiful islands so appealing also makes it extremely expensive to visit — for some prohibitively expensive. Is it necessarily the tourists who can comfortably afford it who bring the most value?