The Government’s announcement of significant new funding for tourism research is a welcome acknowledgement that New Zealand is only beginning to grasp the complexities of a vulnerable part of our economy.
With tourism contributing around 19 per cent of GDP – or $8.1billion annually – there is much to lose if New Zealand falls out of favour as a destination or we lose sight of the end game – which is ultimately about progressing our economic and social development through premium visitor and recreational experiences.
Five years into its first national 10-year plan, the industry faces some extraordinary pressures. An out-of-control (or uncontrollable?) New Zealand dollar, rising oil prices, increasing competition from other destinations, and growing worries about environmental impacts are conspiring to challenge the tourism industry like never before.
While New Zealand still commands only 0.5 percent of long haul visitors there is no doubt that global sentiment and markets will dictate much of our future. Thus we must be active not only in research but also thinking about and adapting to changes in accessibility, which will inevitably shift around among our main markets during the next 20-40 years.
This week’s funding announcement by the Foundation for Science Research and Technology should give the industry, and the many organisations on tourism’s supply side, good cause for optimism. Within four years we can expect to develop new tools and strategies for adapting to the global oil market. This Lincoln-based project will be led by Dr Susanne Becken, whose expertise is internationally recognised. We can also expect to complete a model that will help the industry to improve its overall financial yield – which is currently well below business sector averages. It’s important to note that substitution of domestic tourists for international visitors does not allow us to escape the horns of the dilemma. Domestic travel by New Zealanders within New Zealand is more energy intensive.
However the development of tourism research programmes should not stop there. New Zealand should not have to rely entirely on “Vote Science” for support, or a research agenda dictated by one or two institutions.
In the same way that other industry’s have centralised their research – including the dairy, wool and kiwifruit industries – the time is coming when new Zealand should consider establishing some kind of futures commission for tourism. Australia has already started this processes. Top of the agenda is to address the quite significant risks to tourism and to achieve a less ad-hoc approach to research.
This will inevitably meant a bigger role for tourism’s other major stakeholders, including regional tourism organisations (RTOs), local government and industry operators. There are a number of obvious gaps in our understanding of how to make tourism viable in the long term. We need to analyse visitor preferences and expectations continuously, especially around the questions of tourism quality and sustainability. At a broader level there is a need to examine world and travel demographics such as the aging western populations that might support sector growth and product development.
The role of the public sector in tourism, for many years a bone of contention, needs to re-examined and some serious questions asked about extracting full value from tourists. This might mean charging for core assets such as park visitation (nationally), museums, galleries and other services. At the local government level there are a number of instruments to make sure that tourists “pay their way” but their understanding and application at the moment appears poorly understood.
So too is the nature of the tourism workforce. Some have argued to solve shortages through immigration, but this would seem to run against the core objective of achieving true sustainability.
The goal of sustainability – to have an economy that doesn’t cost the earth – needs to be backed up with action at operator level. A recent OECD study concluded that New Zealand has dragged its feet on all sustainability measures and a just-completed review of the 10 year strategy reveals that some of the industry’s resolve has fallen away. The question of carbon neutrality, for example, was identified in the 2002 document and little overt progress has been made in the intervening years. There is now talk about the advantages or otherwise of being a “first mover” on the sustainability agenda – as if to undersell the magnitude of the challenge.
Tourism businesses need to get busy with green accreditations and environment auditing systems. Regional destination plans can be given legal standing and resources by bringing them in to their councils’ Long Term Plans. Transport impacts need to be addressed with urgency. New Zealand faces a crucial set of challenges in developing a resource efficient sector, and at the same time promoting regional economical development.
As the sector becomes more mature and resources mount, strategies must be informed by robust research. Tourism will have little future if it is fighting fires on many fronts. The new research programmes under way now are vital – how to move beyond these might best be decided by a formal coalition of stakeholders operating as a national institute.
David Simmons is Professor of Tourism at Lincoln University, which this week was awarded $2.5million in research funding from the Foundation for Research Science and Technology.