If you think there are more tourists around than there used to be, you are correct.

OPINION: If you think there are more tourists around than there used to be, you are correct.

The number of visitors coming into New Zealand currently averages 320,000 a month, a 56 per cent increase on 10 years ago.

The busiest month of the year for tourism, unsurprisingly, is December. In the last month of 2016, we welcomed 494,000 visitors, compared with 444,000 the previous year. The statistics for last month aren’t out yet, but expect the number to break the half-million benchmark.

This is all good news for the economy. Tourism overtook the dairy industry as the nation’s biggest export industry two years ago. Tourism now accounts for $14.5 billion, or more than one-fifth, of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Directly or indirectly, it employs about 330,000 people – 13 per cent of the work force.

On the whole, New Zealanders view tourism positively – according to a survey conducted in November, 92 per cent feel it is a good thing, and 87 per cent take pride in making international visitors welcome.

However, when told of the number of people coming here – 3.8 million a year – respondents to the Tourism NZ and Tourism Industry Aotearoa survey were more ambivalent.

Just under half (47 per cent) felt that number was “about right”. Only 23 per cent wanted to see more tourists arriving, and about the same number felt that we already have too many.

However, more tourists is exactly what we are likely to get. The worth of the international and domestic travel markets combined is currently about $35b. The tourism industry’s stated objective is to increase that to $41b by 2025, and it is well on track to achieve that.

In the November survey, 40 per cent of respondents said they were worried about the pressures of rising tourist numbers. This proportion had doubled over the past two years. It’s not hard to imagine why. Stories about freeloading freedom campers squeezing out the locals, visitors despoiling the environment and foreign tourists driving badly are now staples of the summer news cycle.

The central Government shows relatively little leadership on dealing with the problems. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is tasked with devising strategy to manage impacts, even as Tourism NZ and industry groups are relentlessly trying to attract ever-increasing numbers of people here.

A special tourism infrastructure fund announced in National’s last budget, of $100m to be spent over four years, has so far been allocated to mainly a small number of car parks and public toilet facilities in specific areas. It works out to just $6.75 per international tourist.

When problems such as freedom camping arise, it is left to local authorities to deal with them. Shortfalls in accommodation – a key concern and one which impacts on travelling New Zealanders competing with cashed-up foreign visitors for hotel and motel beds – are deemed to be for private enterprise to sort out.

The truth is that there is a limit to the number of people who can be accommodated without further damage to the environment or stresses on our infrastructure.

If tourist numbers keep going up, the Government and industry may have to accept the need to invest more into making sure New Zealand is ready to receive them.

 – The Press


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