Is this the beginning of the end for mass tourism?
Two Cents Worth is answering listeners’ questions about how Covid-19 could change the world.
A few weeks ago, Two Cents Worth listener David Cohen asked a question we liked very much: Could we find out from other TCW enthusiasts how they think Covid-19 could change the world?
We have asked for and received impressive responses.
One listener asked if Covid-19 could herald the loss of civil liberties in democratic countries, another whether the pandemic could be a catalyst to eventually pull New Zealand away from its fate as a theme park and farm. A third asked whether a price cap on all goods and services, including imports, would guarantee the taxpayer a long-term value from the bailout.
We hope to address some in the future, but for this episode, we asked two questions. Both are covered in the audio below, and in this article we explore the first, on the future of mass tourism.
This question was from David Cohen himself: âCoupled with the need to respond to global warming, is this the beginning of the end for mass tourism? He asked. And in fact, this theme – Covid-19 as a catalyst for better environmental management – has been picked up in a number of other questions.
The second question we chose was totally different. But just as fascinating. It was about whether the virus would lead to a different way of designing everyday objects so that we don’t have to touch them and germs can’t spread through them.
Door handles, for example, or switches or taps – especially when installed in public places.
More on this one in the audio above, but also in this separate story.
Integrating sustainability into the reconstruction of tourism
To answer David Cohen’s question on Covid-19 and mass tourism, we contacted an expert from the University of Otago.
Professor James Higham works at the Business School and one of his main areas of research is sustainable tourism. He co-edits the peer-reviewed Journal of Sustainable Tourism.
Higham is locked in his home on the Otago Peninsula – a place once described by English botanist and television presenter David Bellamy as “the best example of ecotourism in the world.”
Higham says Cohen’s question is particularly prescient as the impact of mass tourism on New Zealand has been a priority since Simon Upton, parliamentary commissioner for the environment and former national MP, wrote a hard-hitting report released just before. Christmas last year.
Entitled “In perfect condition, popular … in danger? The environmental consequences of the projected growth of tourism“, the report warns of the downsides of the huge growth in the number of international visitors – the number rose from one million in the early 1990s to nearly four million last year, and before Covid hit , they were to reach five million by 2024.
Pressures from mass tourism include loss of biodiversity, degradation of water quality, greenhouse gas emissions and the number of visitors ruining some of the “wild” landscapes that people come to see, said Upton.
Consider the Tongariro Crossing, Franz Joseph, Milford Sound, Fox Glacier or Roy’s Peak hike near Wanaka.
“By selling access to these experiences, tourism risks becoming an extractive industry in its own right,” Upton said. âAn inexorable growth in numbers risks an irreversible decline in both the quality of the environment and its human experience. This could run the risk of “killing the goose that laid the golden eggs”.
The report also touched on the most important and frightening question of all: given that virtually all tourists have to take a long-haul flight to get here, is there a long-term future for tourism? international in New Zealand?
It was in the days of British Columbia – before Covid. Now we have no more international tourists, nor domestic tourists either. And that scenario is incredibly hard on the thousands of New Zealand tourism operators large and small, Higham says.
Tourism is essentially going to have to do what power producers call a “black restart” – prepare from a blackout.
“We have the opportunity to stop and think and rebuild a more sustainable tourism system”
The first step, he says, is to help businesses survive and try to restore some economic certainty in extremely uncertain times.
But as part of rebuilding the area, “we have the opportunity to stop and reflect and we have the opportunity to rebuild a more sustainable tourism system,” Higham said.
âI think of this in terms of rewiring the tourist system. If you’re thinking about rewiring a house, it’s a huge commitment, a huge cost, and a big undertaking, but it is much easier to wire the house when you rebuild it.
âThere is a lot of pain, uncertainty and stress in the industry right now, but we may have the opportunity to rebuild the kind of tourism industry that the parliamentary commissioner’s report talks about. “
Higham believes New Zealand has been slow to respond to the challenges of climate change. âWe currently have an opportunity to disrupt, re-imagine and build a future-proof tourism industry that will help address climate change issues through 2050 and beyond.â
Researchers around the world are studying what’s called “tourism optimization,” says Higham.
It’s about accepting that not all tourists bring the same value, not only in terms of what they spend, but also in terms of the damage they cause to the environment and local resources. The idea is that we should try to target those that bring the most benefits and the least costs.
And the big spenders aren’t necessarily the optimal tourists, Higham says. If you look through an environmental lens, you could argue that a backpacker who spends a few months crisscrossing the country in a motorhome – or even better on a bicycle – is more valuable than a guy who steals, stays on top. – upscale lodges – expensive lodges to build and run – and fly over Franz Joseph and Milford Sound by helicopter.
âIn a faraway destination like New Zealand, we need to target tourists who don’t have to travel that far to get here because of the link between distance to travel and carbon footprint. We also want those who stay longer.
âRather than visitors arriving and departing by air, we would seek to find markets with visitors who stay here longer, especially since people who stay here longer tend to be more dispersed in their journeys.
âThis, in theory, takes the pressure off these destinations under so much stress from visitor numbers and shares the benefits with communities that don’t see a lot of tourists. ”
It will not be easy to get buy-in. Many operators will understandably be desperate for any kind of tourist to start returning.
And the growing number of international visitors has been used in the past as a way to get us out of an economic crisis.
âTourism is critically important to New Zealand,â says Higham. âTen years ago, after the GFC, tourism was seen as a driver of economic recovery. At the time, Prime Minister John Key became Minister of Tourism and implemented ambitious plans to drive tourism to the recovery.
Higham says the government may need to be involved again this time around, but the focus should be on sustainable growth.
“This rewiring of which I am speaking may allow the government to have a stronger hand to shape and influence the course of this reconstruction.”