Making tourism sustainable post-Covid – Expert Reaction

A tax on NZ tourists leaving the country, and tougher rules for car rental agencies, are two things the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has suggested could make tourism more sustainable.

Other recommendations include requiring new tourism infrastructure to meet environmental criteria before it gets funding, and strengthening tools the Department of Conservation can use to address the loss of wildness and natural quiet across our natural attractions.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the study. 

Professor C. Michael Hall, Department of Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The four recommendations of the PCE represent a valuable step on the path to an improved contribution from the tourism sector not only to the sustainability of the industry in New Zealand but to improved sustainability in the country as a whole.

“A departure tax that directly contributes to reducing tourism‘s substantial emissions contribution is especially welcome. Despite concerns that will undoubtedly be expressed from some quarters it will have little direct effect on international travel per se but it will contribution to mitigation and adaptation. Importantly, it reinforces the desire for New Zealand tourism to be positioned as a high-value / high-quality destination and it reinforces New Zealand’s place brand. If done correctly it will likely even attract some of the more green-oriented tourists. However, it needs to support not only low-carbon technologies and climate finance but also tourist and public behavioural change initiatives.

“Ensuring that tourism infrastructure funding is conditioned on environmental criteria is an excellent suggestion but there needs to be a clearer spelling out of how consultation and alignment will be conducted. Given the essential role of transport in tourism the condition of environmental criteria needs to be expanded to all transport infrastructure funding as well. The basis question needs to be: does this help us reduce emissions?

“Tackling the issue of a loss of wildness and quiet will be invaluable in ensuring that wilderness and natural experiences on the Conservation Estate can be retained and, perhaps in some cases, regained.

“Proposals for self-contained freedom camping are extremely welcome but they do not go far enough. The whole issue of public toilet provision in New Zealand needs to be considered and is a broader public health issue that affects domestic travel as well as international tourism. Local councils have for too long sought to see toilet provision as a cost rather than a benefit and it is absolutely essential that we look to develop a national public toilet strategy from health, economic, social and tourism perspectives.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Christian Schott, Tourism Management Group, Wellington School of Business and Government, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The timing of this report is very appropriate as the current pandemic-imposed period of less-than-usual and domestically-driven tourism gives us time to reflect, reimagine and (hopefully) redesign tourism to, and in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I whole-heartedly agree with the Commissioner that we must not miss this opportunity, which has been accompanied by much hardship and suffering here and around the world, and that we must have a robust discussion about ‘what Kiwis want from tourism’ over the short and long term, and whether what we had prior to COVID-19 aligns with this.

“Notable are the three principles underlying the four recommendations, as they speak to the broader positioning of the PCE on tourism. I largely agree with them. For instance, I strongly support the second principle that “the wishes of the communities and mana whenua should be a key input into decisions”, although the term “key input” is too loose and the report should go further to locate the exact place of communities and mana whenua. I also strongly agree with the third principle that “tourists and tourism businesses should pay for the cost of the services they use” – importantly including the ‘free’ environmental services. Whilst the first principle also sounds reasonable there are other sections in the report where it appears to be suggested that government investment in tourism infrastructure should not be supported; this is not wise in my view as much of the tourism infrastructure is not just a few years out of step with demand, but decades. A new approach to tourism will nevertheless require significant infrastructure investment, not only for the benefits of international tourists, but also the growing numbers of domestic tourists and the members of the (often also growing) communities alike.

“The four recommendations provide for robust debate and from what I can glean from the report are well-informed, appropriate and needed; as highlighted, many of these measures have been used in other countries for many years and are in fact not that ‘out there’ in an international context.

“What is missing is a framework that positions these four recommendations within a broader, holistically focused roadmap for tourism to, and in Aotearoa/New Zealand. There is little explicit focus on the role of domestic tourism, which plays a significant role in this and keeps changing with the growing and changing profile of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s population. It also feels like a missed opportunity not to go further by being more aspirational and by introducing the concept of regenerative tourism into this important and future-defining debate.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Richard Aquino, School of Hospitality & Tourism, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“The report on sustainable tourism, by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, presents some timely and valuable proposals for tourism sustainability and management in New Zealand. The recommendations attempt to provide sustainable and long-term solutions on four key issues. The report is comprehensive and research-informed, and outlines concrete suggestions that could be implemented as New Zealand moves forward onto the pathway to tourism recovery.

“The report is optimistic that a proposed departure tax will be well received by international tourists. Together with introducing fees to access conservation areas, this policy is directed towards supporting high-value tourism. However, the report’s definition of high-value tourism could have been made clearer.

“Based on the proposed policies, it is implied that attracting tourists who can afford additional taxes will generate high-value tourism. If this is the case, this concept of high-value tourism limits the perceived benefits of tourism to the purely economic; it is not guaranteed that visitors willing to pay these fees also have strong social and environmental values. Besides filtering visitors based on their capacity to pay, the design of visitor experiences and type of tourism offered should be given equal attention.

Tourism policies should also fully adapt to the needs of the local communities. It is great to see emphasis given on the participation of multiple stakeholders, especially of the mana whenua and local communities, at the very first planning stages. The report presents useful suggestions for local councils on how to actively engage these stakeholders in the planning process.

“Grassroots tourism development takes time and requires meaningful interactions with local stakeholders. This is necessary for long-term community visioning and destination planning. However, in leading these engagements, local councils should ensure their processes are not tokenistic, and will genuinely incorporate the aspirations of the mana whenua and local communities.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Lueck, School of Hospitality & Tourism, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“When the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment published the report “Pristine, popular…imperilled?” in December 2019, he made clear that his report was an account of the state of the tourism industry in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he deliberately did not offer any recommendations for actions. After a consultancy phase, he now has released “Not 100% – but four steps closer to sustainable tourism, outlining four main recommendations on how New Zealand can plan for a more sustainable re-growth of the tourism industry after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“While some may argue that this is not the right time to do so, due to a largely suffering tourism industry, I believe it is the perfect time to take action. From the early stages of the pandemic, there have been many voices asking to “reset the tourism button”, seeing the current absence of international tourists as the perfect opportunity to rethink tourism in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“The four recommendations have merit, and – if implemented – will lead to a more sustainable future of New Zealand tourism.

“Recommendation One asks for a departure tax on all departing international flights. While I support this recommendation, it would need to be carefully implemented, and possibly combined with the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy. Having two such charges for international tourists – one for inbound and one for outbound flights – will quickly lead to the feeling of being “ripped off”, and a subsequent poor reputation. In addition, I would expand the departure tax to domestic flights, since these are commonly the least environmentally friendly ones.

“The second recommendation is to make future central government funding for tourism infrastructure conditional to environmental criteria and aligned with mana whenua and local community’s vision. This is an important recommendation and applicants for funding need to carefully assess and justify infrastructure proposals on these bases.

“Recommendation Three suggests that the Department of Conservation will have more power to address loss of wilderness and natural quiet, including the tightening of rules around commercial activities in Aotearoa’s conservation estate. I would also add making more resources available to DoC, in particular human resources.

“The last recommendation asks for tightened freedom camping rules. This recommendation is fully supported, however, it is important to point out that lots of freedom camping infringements and problems also stem from domestic tourists, as shown in our research.

“To me, the big disappointment is a missing recommendation regarding the cruise ship industry. Time and again research has shown that this type of tourism causes a plethora of social and environmental problems (Akaroa is a prime example in New Zealand), and there is an urgent need to reduce vessel size and the number of visits to ports in Aotearoa New Zealand. With the current complete absence of any cruise ships, it is now the golden opportunity to act and impose such regulations.”

No conflict of interest.

Chris Rosin, Senior Lecturer, Dept of Tourism, Sport and Society, Lincoln University; and Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, comments:

International ‘departure tax’ on air travel

“This reflects on the implications for the attraction of New Zealand as a destination, the impact on NZ-citizens travelling internationally and potential benefits for the environment as well as the usage of the funds collected. While being progressive by ‘doing something’, it does not fully address the implications in terms of reputational impacts for NZ as a signatory to international climate agreements, especially with regard to the potential for continued growth in tourism numbers to eliminate any benefits to total carbon emissions from efficiency gains.”

The recommendations on ‘freedom camping’ are appropriate

“But like those directed to international air travel, they raise a potential red herring. The focus on only one aspect of tourism runs the risk of ignoring other activities that have similar social and environmental impacts. The issue of freedom camping should be addressed in the broader context of dealing to the demands, expectations and practices of all tourists that conflict with the social and environmental values and expectations of the communities where tourism occurs.”

Caution in framing issues within a narrow focus

“The proposal to introduce destination management plans is attractive – but it does not guarantee that special or more powerful interests will not hold sway in the negotiation of such plans. The report suggests that these will arrive at agreed levels and forms of tourism; but they can equally reinforce a currently ascendant form or level that does not account for the diversity of opinion. There is likely a role for a trained facilitator to contribute to the development of the planning process. Similarly, the designation of “environmental performance standards” is presented without much consideration of the complexities and uncertainties in doing so.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Nicolas Lewis, Associate Professor of Geography, School of Environment, University of Auckland; and Theme Leader Blue Economy, Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, comments:

“The initiatives announced are welcome recognition that Aotearoa needs to imagine the tourism futures it wants and to act to secure them. Such initiatives are long overdue.

“For decades government has managed economic development by pursuing growth on the basis that every dollar of export revenue is equal in value to Aotearoa as any other. It is crucial for sustainability transitions that we rethink this approach, especially in tourism, which has such major impacts on our landscapes, physical and social. These impacts really do differ radically by place and type of tourism.

“The establishment of Destination Management Plans and their links to government funding for tourism development is the most promising of the initiatives. The DMPs aim to empower well organised communities to envisage and encourage different tourism futures.

“It is deeply encouraging to see local communities and tangata whenua put at the core of futures making in this way. However, to work, the DMPs will need to be conceived by genuinely empowered community actors, institutionalised at appropriate geographical scales, have genuine leverage over enterprises, and avoid capture by vested interests.

“On the other hand, the initiatives could do more to signal a decisive interruption to business as usual in tourism or lay out a decisive new direction. Growth in numbers still appears to be the national game.

“Singling out freedom campers, as opposed to, for example, low engagement high impact package tourists, sends an unfortunate signal about where Destination Planning might go.

“Perhaps government might consider firmer commitments to a stringer emphasis on ecotourism; funding packages for restorative tourism or community-owned tourism initiatives; more stringent certification or licensing for package tourism operators; and absolute limits to tourism numbers.

“Covid recovery is a one-off opportunity to build something new. We can’t afford to squander it by being overly conservative.”

No conflict of interest declared.