One loud, rubbish-strewing family, bolting from restaurants and careening down the North Island, has dented the once abundant goodwill towards the tourism industry. But the real damage to that goodwill has come from a public fed up with the effects of cheap tourism.
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People are fed up with the strain on our infrastructure, reckless driving, accidents and near misses, with rubbish dumped in pristine settings, with toileting wherever – in bushes (in towns as well as in the wild) and in rivers and with subsidising this low cost tourism by paying for over stretched infrastructure.
It’s fair to say the sheen of tourism has long gone.
As if that’s not enough of a wakeup call, research into the gas emissions of tourism in 160 countries by Dr Arunima Malik of the University of Sydney shows that tourism is responsible for four times more greenhouse gas emissions than previously estimated – and world wide is responsible for 8 per cent of all gas emissions.
So not only is cheap tourism degrading our environment and our infrastructure, but it is also contributing to our appalling record over the past 10 years of gas emissions increases when they were meant to be decreasing.
As the golden halo around tourism dims it’s time for an environmental and social review of the sustainability of the cheap tourism path New Zealand has taken.
An environmental and social review would first answer the question of how sustainable it is to have 4 million tourists visit New Zealand every year. That’s almost as many people who actually live here. We need to know the greenhouse gas impact of a rise to 6 million visitors or even 8 million. In this era of climate catastrophe the tourism industry can no longer plan for unlimited growth.
An environmental and social review would prescribe how many tourists our current infrastructure and fragile environments can cope with. It would identify the current and future impacts of tourism so we can plan to transform the industry to higher returns per visitor and to minimise emissions.
What remains of our once pristine environment must be treasured and marketed accordingly because of its special taonga and mana status and we should reflect that by pricing tourism experiences at a premium to offset the environmental damage.
We may need to regulate the industry to ensure it takes its duties of kaitiakitanga punctiliously.
Last year our family wine business was a finalist in the NZ Māori Tourism Awards, giving us the opportunity of hearing leading Māori tourism operators on the future of both their business and the industry. The winner was a marae who connected whakapapa and kaitiakitanga to a highly personal authentic cultural experience which could readily be marketed into the high end luxury market.
Industry leader Air New Zealand could lead the task of upvaluing our environment and of marketing our tourism services as premium experiences. It has made a commitment in the past four years to focus on reductions and innovation – achieving a 21 per cent reduction in fuel efficiency – the fact is that the number of visitors they are flying in is outstripping their efforts to bring their fuel emissions down (they went up 3 per cent).
Increasingly tourists will want to know about the environmental and social impacts of their travel. And we would be well advised to get ahead of the game and get our own impact reports done. These would form an accurate basis for industry planning on the steps it needs to take to adapt to a changing climate. Doing nothing is not an option.
• Donna Awatere Huata is Māori Climate Commissioner.