Unprecedented border closures and the domestic lockdown have paralysed New Zealand’s $40.9 billion a year tourism industry. In the process, the vulnerability of the sector to external shocks and the tenuous nature of tourism employment have been exposed.
While New Zealand’s handling of the pandemic has been hailed as a global masterclass, and the prospect of travel bubbles promoted as a way to restart the tourism economy and save jobs, it is clear there is no quick fix.
The inherent dangers of reinfection from travel to and from countries with uncontrolled community transition, and the challenge of protecting New Zealand’s borders, mean international tourism is grounded for the time being.
Nevertheless, planning for recovery is underway. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) wants to restore confidence and restart tourism without delay. The European Union recently opened its borders to travellers from certain countries, including New Zealand.
Reducing travel distances is key
In the case of a geographically distant destination like New Zealand, there is no ignoring the last of those problems, as a report by the New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment highlighted in late 2019.
The fact is, high carbon emissions are embedded in New Zealand’s tourism GDP. In the rebuild we must commit to measuring the carbon footprint of tourism, and actively manage forms of tourism that come with a disproportionately high carbon cost.
In practice, this will mean more tourism from the regional medium-haul markets that fall within the proposed Australia-New Zealand-Pacific travel bubble. Increasing reliance on Australian states rather than long-haul markets will result in a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions per dollar of tourism GDP.
Research published in 2010 showed that while Australian tourists made up 37% of international visitors to New Zealand they were responsible for 13% of air travel emissions. By contrast, visitors from Europe made up 18% of total visitors but 43% of emissions.
Fewer long haul arrivals, more Australian tourists, more domestic tourism and less outbound travel will dramatically reduce tourism carbon emissions.
COVID-19 has already kickstarted the domestic part of this equation. New Zealand hasn’t targeted local tourists since 1984’s iconic “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country” campaign. But the regions are now competing for the roughly 60% of all tourist dollars that New Zealanders spend in their own country each year.
The closure of international borders has also, for now, stopped the significant economic drain caused by outbound travel. In 2019 Kiwis spent nearly $5 billion travelling overseas.