Don’t just market NZ tourism, manage it

Opinion: Too much tourism can harm relations between location residents and visitors. Tourist growth must be balanced to avoid negative impact, writes William Cheung.

Tourists to NZ are photographed looking out onto the beauty of Doubtful Sound, one of the visitor attractions of Fjiordland. Photo: iStock
Tourists to NZ take in the sight of Doubtful Sound, one of the visitor attractions of Fjiordland. Photo: iStock

US entertainer Stephen Colbert visited this country recently and featured highlights of his trip on his popular TV show. This promotion of New Zealand as a tourist destination will likely increase visitor numbers. However, while most travel destinations seek to increase tourism, less attention is paid to balancing this growth with sustainability.

Tourism is New Zealand’s largest export industry, worth $39.1 billion. With 3.8 million international visitors arriving in New Zealand last year, parts of the country are beginning to suffer from the effects of overtourism which is a term used to describe the hazards of a massive and uncoordinated influx of tourists to popular destinations. These are destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel there are too many visitors, and the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably.

The need to close Te Wai o Te Taniwha (the Mermaid Pools) in Matapouri to the public earlier this year is a notable example of the impacts of overtourism. Local iwi were forced to place a rāhui – or temporary prohibition – over the pools in an effort to protect the taonga (treasured possession) from further degradation through overuse.

The research I recently carried out at the University of Auckland Business School, 'Understanding Visitor-Resident Relations in Overtourism: Developing Resilience for Sustainable Tourism', shows that overlooking the numbers of visitors a destination can support (known as a destination’s carrying capacity) is a common mistake made when formulating tourism policies.

Our research evaluated Hong Kong’s expansionary “multiple-entry permit,” travel visa policy to understand the nature of visitor–resident relations in overtourism. In Hong Kong’s case, an unquestioned and taken-for-granted expansionary tourist growth policy has had negative impacts long after the policy was rescinded. More alarmingly, the findings suggest that deterioration in visitor–resident relations from overtourism may be irreversible.

Many destinations are experiencing overtourism: Paris, Berlin, California, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, and Venice are good examples. The social impacts of overtourism include jeopardising how tourists and locals relate to each other. Yet residents play a vital role in developing sustainable tourism, as they are cultural agents and the social group through which tourism is delivered.

If we apply these findings to New Zealand’s tourism industry, it highlights the need to balance the growth in tourists with any consequent visitor-resident friction. If research shows a sudden increase in same-day, in-town tourists (day-trippers) negatively and permanently influences visitor-resident relations, it’s vital to take note of this.

New Zealand already has destinations where the associated problems of crowding, localised inflation and pressure on housing, have created substantial public debate on the desirability of tourism based on a growth model.

Understanding the social impacts of tourism and overtourism on communities is extremely important for the government to ensure action is taken to reduce the likelihood of a backlash against tourists and tourism development.

It is a timely reminder, as we head into our summer holiday season that hasty expansionary tourism policies implemented without proper planning could lead to an overwhelming growth of visitors, resulting in damage to our tourist destinations, and ultimately undermine the country’s long-term tourism development.

While many tourist destinations have experienced rapid improvement in their living standards, especially those in small island countries, it is questionable whether such benefits can last long-term. What is clear is the business-as-usual capitalist economic model predicated on continual expansion is inherently unsustainable for tourism.

We urgently need a holistic approach to tourism that balances destination marketing with destination management.

Dr William K. S. Cheung is a lecturer at the Business School.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Don’t just market NZ tourism, manage it 14 January 2020.

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