New Zealand’s tourism economy has essentially collapsed, and it is part of a global tourism industry collapse that is so big that it may be permanently smaller. But does it have to be?
May overseas visitor arrivals in New Zealand dropped by 217,100 or 99% year-on-year to just over 2,000 people. That’s on a previous 99.4% drop in April.
This may be one of those globals shifts that is so big that our entire tax base will be altered to be lower for the foreseeable future.
The growth of tourism has provided sustainable jobs and massive growth to the global economy over the last two decades.
We have worked for multiple decades to build ourselves as a destination for global travellers, and it has worked. Until this year it directly contributed NZ$16.2 billion (5.8%) of our GDP.
We built an entire national mythos of film and storytelling on our tourism brand – and it was the most successful revival of our economy that we’ve ever had.
That came from our adaptation of a literary masterwork, the Lord of the Rings series from J.R.R. Tolkein.
Without that effort and that series, we would have a far smaller tourism industry over the last decade.
That effort permanently altered how the world sees us – for the better.
And on top of that we have a combination of attractions that we ought to be proud of and to invite the world to see.
As ATEED put it so eloquently, mother earth is breathing, and when we are ready, we will return.
So it’s time we took stock of what we – and the world – have lost with the flatlining of this entire global industry. And maybe just maybe the kind of people we have that can rebuild it.
In 2019 total expenditure was $40.9 billion, an increase of 4% on the previous year. It contributed 20.4% to New Zealand total exports of goods and services. The indirect value of industries supporting tourism added a further 4% of GDP.
It supported 188,000 full-time equivalent jobs or over 7% of our workforce.
Spending by international tourists accounted for 17.1% of our entire export earnings.
Our reputation was so strong that it was the one major industry growth in which our isolation from the world was actually a good thing. $34 billion was contributed to our economy every year as of 2017.
But now even a kick-start to reviving this part of our economy in 2021 is gone. APEC – for which MBIE, MFAT, and ATEED were in preparation for the last 2 years right down to welding Auckland’s sewer manholes shut for security – is no longer. The America’s Cup is down to four boats. The Auckland Kapa Haka champs are gone, as are all the major international sporting competitions that were to happen next year. With the new Covid-19 breakouts in Australia, there is now no chance of an Australiasian bubble – it’s an Australian bungle.
Cold comfort, but it’s bad around the world. The OECD points to a 60% decline in international tourism in 2020, rising to 80% if recovery is delayed until December. Specific regions with tourism within them – such as Europe – are likely to recover first. New Zealand doesn’t have the luxury of a meaningful internal market to replace that, and never will other than for low-rent camping grounds and the elite who own baches.
Now, some may scoff at this massive industrial decline and essentially sigh relief at the death of 20% of everything we produce and a fifth of our exports. Others see the wholesale destruction as the destruction it is.
It’s too early to determine if this scale of economic loss can be actually replaced. It’s certainly a bigger shock to our country than Britain joining the European Common Market, or the collapse of wool prices in the 1966.
But as Lord of the Rings and 100% Pure New Zealand proved, the one thing we can clearly do is re-invent and even re-mythologise ourselves into confidence that the world will want to see us again. We know this because we’ve done it before.
You see that in the successful Australaisn pitch for the 2023 women’s world footbal cup:
Unusually for government policy, this 20% of our economy will not be revived with concrete and steel like infrastructure spending. Or producing more apples. It will be revived from the work of poets and novelists and film-makers.
It won’t always work:
Yet the legacy of our literary-tourism success is so, so powerful still. Just the first 5 minutes of Stephen Colbert coming here will give you the idea of how sustainable that global pulling power is.
So regaining that 20% of our national effort relies on us being the most powerful and creative storytellers, and translating that into the engine of cultural production that drives our tourism industry once more.
Poets, epic novelists, and grand film-makers, your moment in our national revival awaits.