Tourism’s future: a 100% Covid-free NZ

Kick-starting tourism? Really? Slow tourism might be better, argues Juergen Gnoth of the University of Otago

This article was originally published on

The coronavirus crisis will spell the death knell for most tourism businesses in New Zealand. Nobody really knows how long the crisis will last, has ideas of what to do, or where to begin. What can the visitor and hospitality sector really do once we move out of lockdown? 

The government has opted for a caring stance to help businesses survive. However, this will only last for so long. When that money runs out, when reality kicks in, inflationary pressures rise, because conditions overseas signal that international tourists will keep staying away for quite some time. 

It would therefore be wise to focus on the local market. We need to dig up and refresh the old slogan, “don’t leave town ’til you’ve seen the country”!

However, discretionary income and opportunity for holiday travel will also be scarce for times to come. People’s confidence is shaken because, after all, people coming from overseas turned out to be the major vectors and spread of the virus. 

We will therefore need to stay local because overseas, the worst is still to come. Infections both in Europe and the USA are still on the rise, while in Asia speculation is rife as to what the conditions really are. There is talk of secondary and tertiary waves of infections, different strains of the virus, or mutations in the mix. 

Unless New Zealand can present itself as clean of the virus, and protect its citizens through stringent and effective border controls, a questionable amount of energy and money into technological solutions and marketing will have to be spent to entice others to come to the far end of the South Pacific.

International airport operations and conduits will be weary and sluggish to open. Borders will be closed for some nationalities but not others. And, given the time-lag of the virus’ spread between continents and countries, between those who eventually will have a vaccine and those who don’t, there will be further waves of infections. 

New Zealand may open itself to selected markets, such as Singapore or South Korea who appear to be as successful in dealing with the virus. This would have to come at a cost and such selectivity may be questionable technologically and philosophically.

There is little choice for Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand but to mothball part of their operations. Fortunately, New Zealand’s brand image overseas is generic. Our agricultural products are in high demand, and our health strategies, should they succeed, will support our brand. They will be in line with our clean and green image in the world. No other marketing will be needed for a while.

The key to the survival of the tourism sector is to focus on locals, and on traditional Kiwi activities and values that made this country famous for international tourists in the first place: the outdoors, unique culture, and sports, where everybody can have a go. To promote these activities to local markets successfully, business owners will need to get involved locally. They will need to refresh and help invigorate their locality by adding value, by giving more for less. That is, by increasing productivity and by reducing price and profit expectations. They need to actively help build resilience and make future tourism more sustainable, for, what else can they do? 

New strategies need to keep visitors for longer in a region and promote wellbeing. They need to slow down and reduce visitors’ ecological footprint, i.e., their CO2 output, and refrain from reliance on imported consumer goods. ‘Buy local, stay local’ needs to be made attractive. 

To benefit locals and day-visitors, and to ‘green’ the tourism sector at the same time, New Zealand’s destinations need to change their image and business models that used to promote them as a road-trip destinations. Cities and communities would fare better and support their local visitor sector more, were they to build and promote activity circuits, by creating hub-and-spoke offers, and by bundling activities, rather than by growing as ‘coach-stop attractions’. Visitors and tourists need to be able to return to the place they started from. They will then be able to make better use of local facilities and bundled attractions more efficiently. 

The recent push for wider bike and pedestrian trails throughout the country serves the need to localise and decelerate the visitor economy. They are a good start. Business owners and their employees need to volunteer, be active on city councils, sponsor and help on local initiatives that create family attractions, mountain bike parks, or walk-ways. Hospitality, scenic, sports and cultural attractions need to be embedded in health and wellbeing activities to rebuild the local market as the basis for international tourism in the future. 


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