New Zealand tourism strategy focuses on 'high value' tourists at the expense of the rest

It's never felt particularly crowded to me at Milford Sound. Walking the Milford Track, a 53-kilometre amble through some of New Zealand's most spectacular Fiordland scenery, you don't see all that many people.

You meet up with other "trampers" in the huts at night, you share stories, sometimes share meals, but during the day it's easy enough to avoid the masses out there on the trail, when you're breathing in that beautiful air, taking in those views, soaking up one of the world's great tourism experiences.

So it's a little surprising to find that Milford Sound-Piopiotahi has been suffering. Blame all the day-trippers. This is an area of New Zealand that has been hit (pre-COVID at least) by overtourism, with 870,000 annual visitors to an environment of great beauty and fragility – a figure that has more than doubled within a decade. And now, in this new era of travel in which a major reset is possible, the Kiwis want to do something about it.

And it's not just Milford Sound. This is one of several areas in New Zealand that have been heavily reliant on the tourism dollar, and which have also experienced huge numbers of visitors – too many, according to the NZ tourism minister, Stuart Nash. His plan, announced last week, is to scale back those tourist numbers in the future by targeting "high-value" visitors who will bring just as much money to these regions, with fewer annual visits.

This is in line with another idea floated a few months ago by the New Zealand government, which is to introduce a national departure tax, something to reflect the environmental cost of flying to and from New Zealand. Revenue from the tax would go towards research into low-emission aviation, and to help Pacific Island nations deal with climate change.

Both of these, on face value, seem like good ideas. Necessary ideas. There's no doubt overtourism was a serious problem in the pre-COVID world and it seems likely to become a problem once again in the next few years. Something has to be done, and I can see plenty of other destinations with the same issues following the Kiwis' lead.

The idea of chasing "high-value" visitors makes sense. Governments will always want the sweet, sweet revenue that tourism brings, but with this idea they can appear to care for the environment too, while also keeping most stakeholders happy. A sizeable departure levy, meanwhile, would discourage unnecessary visits and prohibit some people from flying at all.

Other countries are considering similar moves. Indonesia has mooted sky-high entrance fees for the environmentally sensitive Komodo Island in 2019. Earlier that same year, Venice considered introducing fees for day trippers wanting to enter the city.

But herein lies the problem, the inconvenient truth. The solution to overtourism is to stop so many tourists visiting, and the tourists the Kiwis' ideas target are those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those who don't have as much money to spend as others.

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It's obvious that the result of destinations going for "high value" visitors in lower numbers is that prices are going to go up – they have to for this whole thing to work – and experiences will become inaccessible to lower income earners. That's not a projection or a prediction. It's the entire point of the exercise.

Similarly, the proposed departure tax, being regressive, will hit those on lower incomes hardest. If you have plenty of spare cash an extra levy will just be a bit of a bummer. But if you're scraping together the money just to make it onto a budget flight, this could tip you over the edge of not even visiting. (Which, again, is part of the idea.)

Of course, travel has always been the domain of the privileged. It remains so. It's just that so many more of us recently have been able to count ourselves among those privileged, thanks to the dramatic drop in airfares in the past few decades, and the rising ranks of middle classes across the globe able to access those opportunities.

That's led to a worldwide tourism boom, with a phenomenal number of people moving about the globe. Some have been travelling for fun, some for work, some to see family, some to start a family of their own. What a privilege. What a joy.

The idea from the New Zealand government, however, is to take that privilege away from some people. It's to say that travel should once again only be for a certain group of people, and not those who have only so recently been able to access it. There's too many of you, the policy says. The poorer ones need to stay away.

That doesn't seem fair to me. Fortunately, there's a really simple solution here to create a level playing field for potential visitors of all socio-economic backgrounds, and still care for the Earth. You just have to… Ha, just kidding, I have no idea what to do. This is a difficult problem, and perhaps the Kiwi solution is the best of a bad bunch of ideas to make a difference.

Because we can't go back to the way things were. Or at least, we shouldn't. Overtourism is a genuine issue. Environmental damage is lasting and real. Not just in New Zealand but in so many parts of the world.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that money talks, and it's those with a lack of it who are going to be made to suffer, while everyone else just carries on.

Do you think it's a good idea for destinations to target "high-value" visitors? Or does it unfairly target those from lower income brackets? Will you still visit New Zealand if there's a large departure tax?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Jacinda Ardern's travel tips: Treat NZ like another Australian state

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