22 November 2004
Tourism in Canterbury has reached the point where a more sophisticated level of planning is required, writes Professor David Simmons.
Tourism has become a crucial part of the Christchurch economy, contributing 12 percent of all jobs and providing a total of $1.9 billion in benefits to the city’s economy. Many of the region’s smaller centres, too, owe much of their revival to a healthy visitor industry. In Akaroa, for example, around half of all jobs are dependent upon tourism.
The industry now appears to be doubling in volume every decade or so. Expenditure is increasing at about 1.5 times that rate. While this kind of growth is largely welcomed, there are signs that it could soon outgrow its host environment – unless major changes are made in the way we plan ahead.
Recent research, funded by FoRST and presented to Canterbury’s Visitor Co-ordination Group, suggests that tourism’s “footprint” is still quite modest. For every 100 Christchurch residents, there are around 9.3 visitors at any time – certainly not enough to dominate the people who live here. But in less than five years time, by the end of 2008, this is projected to have increased to 14.8 percent. At this point, Christchurch is likely to look and feel quite different.
Such growth makes planning imperative because tourism is a resource-based industry that can experience boom-bust scenarios. If visitor numbers become too high, the public may become disenchanted. When this happens the quality of the visitor experience declines, and the past investment in developing the tourism industry becomes undermined.
In addition, the environmental capacity of Christchurch and local tourism magnets such as Akaroa, Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura to absorb tourism is finite. Over-expansion can degrade the key qualities that visitors seek when they come here, and local communities can lose the things they value. Will the character of the central city be maintained if there are hundreds of campervans all orbiting for a parking space?
In other words, unmanaged tourism can be a significant risk to long-term community stability and well-being.
Canterbury must therefore consider carefully the overall style and size of its tourism industry, - not just the growth in visitor numbers – in order to avoid a boom-bust cycle. Such planning is also important to ensure the benefits of tourism accrue fairly. At the moment it seems Christchurch gains disproportionately more than the smaller visitor centres, because around 97 per cent of all international bed-nights in Canterbury are still recorded in the city. This suggests that the burden on ratepayers to provide infrastructure is considerably higher in rural areas.
Through the development of regional tourism case studies, we now understand that the risks to tourism fall into several distinct areas - institutional, infrastructure and environmental (both physical, social and cultural). In terms of the institutional arrangements, neither Christchurch nor Akaroa have a well-resourced structure for tourism management at the level of sophistication as, for example, Rotorua.
There is now a clear need to develop a regional strategic planning process involving representation from agencies and stakeholder groups such as the regional council, city and district councils, regional and district tourism organisations, local residents and local iwi.
The output from this process would be a Christchurch and Canterbury Strategic Tourism Plan.
The importance of tourism for the New Zealand economy is now deeply etched into the public mind. For the past two decades the various reports, forecasts and strategies for tourism have delivered a common message: New Zealand has an exceptional visitor “product” to offer, and the potential for economic growth appears almost boundless.
From half a million visitors in 1963, tourist numbers have doubled each decade to two million arrivals annually. Under the government’s Tourism Strategy still more are forecast – as many as three million by 2010.
In the year to September 2004, international visitors spent $6.468billion in New Zealand, up 4.2 per cent, with Australia exceeding $1billion for the first time. More than 72 per cent of international visitor spending came from seven key markets, including the United Kingdom ($940million), Japan ($658million), South Korea ($616million) the United States ($574million).
These numbers are impressive, but they do not give us a complete picture. In particular the arrivals and turnover data says little about profitability, and it certainly offers no guarantee of improvements in profitability ahead. Future development and economic returns will only occur if there is some certainty that the trend is permanent and positive. The growth in visitors from Australia seems to be a long-term trend, but we need to remember that not all operators benefit from this particular market.
Tourism leaders make no bones about their goals. They want still more tourists, and they want them to stay for longer. It’s a controversial outlook, considering the pressure that is already starting to emerge in our most popular visitor destinations.
New Zealand continues to enjoy an excellent reputation for services and the overall quality of the visitor experience. The big issue for our star economic performer is how close we can come to the promise of “100% Pure” when the numbers are so much larger.
The New Zealand tourism industry is, therefore, facing a testing time. An increasingly sophisticated tourism market will not tolerate a visitor experience that falls badly short of its image. Research to date suggests there is an invisible threshold for tourism, and beyond this point the benefits of tourism will be outweighed by economic, social and environmental costs. If this is the case, the industry must weigh up the effect of increasing numbers or, alternatively, improving the yield from each visitor.
Certainly there is a strong case for improving yield. Our distance from the main tourism markets means there will always be some expense to get here, and visitors already tend to stay for an extended period (currently 19 nights). If we improve the yield, there is less urgency to achieve an increase in total visitor numbers each year. And given that the quality of the tourism experiences rests on “public goods” (friendly people, fresh air, attractive landscapes, Māori culture) the real assets of tourism are more easily conserved.
But within the yield-volume strategy there are many questions to be answered. Is a high yield tourist in Canterbury also providing a good yield for the West Coast? How do we value tourism’s assets and maintain community infrastructure? Are the benefits of tourism being distributed fairly? The challenge is to attract the right mix of travellers and to respond to their changes in tastes and preferences over time.
We can be fairly certain that the core characteristics of New Zealand tourism will remain the same – a place that offers peace, solitude and a close-to-nature experience – and these things will only increase in value. But much of the detail remains an unknown. Until we understand the relationship between New Zealand, its people, and our visitors, it’s probably best that we hasten slowly.
David Simmons is Professor of Tourism at Lincoln University