22 November 2004
Tourism is now New Zealand’s biggest export sector, ahead of dairy, but was almost totally overlooked in the latest allocation by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FoRST). David Simmons sets out the case for a new research focus.
A recent article in New Scientist magazine warns that eco-tourism, currently growing at 30 per cent per year, may be endangering the wildlife that people are travelling to see. And while nations like New Zealand are trying to ensure that their tourism projects are sensitive, many eco-tourist projects are unaudited, unaccredited and merely hint that they are based on environmentally sound ideas.
This is a timely reminder that tourism is struggling to cover even the most obvious areas of research needed to map out a sustainable future.
The latest allocation of FoRST funding is, therefore, difficult to understand. Of the $80million allocated, almost half has gone to the development of innovative food items ($22million) and natural hazards research ($14million). Other big winners include research into new building materials, the development of a new varieties of sauvignon blanc, “functional” packaging materials, and research into high-temperature superconductors. Only $480,000 of new funding has been allocated to tourism research, and the total science investment in tourism is reduced.
We are now in the unenviable position where tourism receives around one twentieth of the public funding that dairy gets, even though it contributes just as much to our economy and GDP.
The lack of a real focus for tourism research is disturbing. It may seem like we can keep absorbing visitors at the current rate of increase, but there must be hard physical limits that we can not exceed. Some commentators believe these have already been reached, such as the 90 coaches running into Milford Sound each day. Do we really believe this area will hold any attraction if it becomes 180 coaches?
More research is needed to understand the nature of the relationship between tourism and the natural environment. Most industries can place an accurate value on their assets, but there is still no clear understanding about the value of the natural environment to tourism. Nor do we fully understand tourism’s positive and negative contribution to its communities. Beyond these measurements we need to define the human values of the environment-tourism relationship so that we can work out how to mitigate impacts, maximise opportunities and develop policies for issues such as the management of the conservation estate. Only when this is achieved can we hope to deliver the experiences and facilities that are appropriate for both locals and visitors in long term.
There are similar gaps in our knowledge of tourism economics. It is vitally important that businesses understand how to improve their value, including return-on-capital as well as adequate compensation for the use of public goods and services. A small homestay operation does not need to grow into a lodge or a resort, but it does need to ensure that it can meet and exceed the expectations of the market and contribute to the overall operating environment. Many in the industry talk of the high yield tourist. But who is this ideal visitor? Is it the backpacker buying local fare, the family in a campervan or those staying in boutique accommodation close to urban centres? The principles of business apply equally across the tourism sector. If we run down our asset base we are on a short path to boom and bust cycles. The real challenge for tourism is to recognise that so many of its assets are in the public domain.
There is a clear indication for robust government investment in tourism research, over and above the solutions within the marketing or services realm. We need to know much more about the social and cultural dimensions of tourism, and how they impact on the industry’s sustainability. Many in the industry believe that culture could be used more explicitly to add value to the visitor experience. The key is to do so in a way that maintains quality and integrity. Through enriching the cultural element of the tourism experience, New Zealand can aim to enhance its position, improve earnings and reduce its dependence on “making the numbers” through visitor arrivals.
The New Zealand tourism industry has proven many times over that it can increase visitor numbers. Now that it is recognising the challenge of becoming truly sustainable (as opposed to annual growth management) the focus needs to shift to the pillars that support the industry – the environment, social and cultural dimensions – as well as the financial bottom line.
Many in the industry have a much more sophisticated view of sustainability than even a few years ago. Operators are responding to the immediate need to reduce waste, improve energy efficiency and avoid dependence on fossil fuels, but there is also a growing awareness of the social and cultural aspects of tourism and the “big picture” of sustaining our key characteristics and natural assets.
The adoption of these principles at a Green Globe 21 sustainable tourism declaration at Kaikoura in March of this year was an encouraging step. Especially important is the recognition this week of Kaikoura District as the world’s first certified Green Globe Destination. The reward recognised five years of dedicated work, benchmarking and independent review of key environmental indicators that demonstrate Kaikoura is on a solid pathway to sustainable development. Importantly, while shaping community initiated change is a long path, the progress in Kaikoura rests firmly on previous government research investment in understanding tourism in Kaikoura. Measurement inevitability comes before management.
Although it was a major step to issue such a declaration, it also shows just how far we have to go. A complete understanding of these intricate relationships may be decades away, but it is imperative that we continue to build our knowledge. One thing is certain – sustainable tourism requires strong partnerships between a diverse private sector and virtually every arm of government. Nowhere is this more evident than in the need for a scientific, research driven approach to planning and management.
An old expression says people can sit in the shade today because someone had the foresight to plant a tree long ago. Our tourism industry, upon which our future heavily depends, is at a similar point. The Government and industry leaders must make sustainability the most important objective of all, to ensure New Zealand is still an attraction when the industry passes to the next generation.
David Simmons is Professor of Tourism at Lincoln University