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.
But the proposed trans-Tasman and Pacific bubbles will likely be among the first safe international travel zones in the world.
A Tasman-Pacific bubble is good for the planet
The economic benefits are obvious. A recent study using UNWTO data identified Australian tourists, who spend on average $7,490 on holidays, as the top spending tourists in the world. Of the 3.8 million international tourists who visited New Zealand in 2018, nearly 40% were from Australia.
By the end of 2019, Australian tourists had spent $NZ 2.5 billion in the New Zealand economy. Of course, that figure is offset by the $NZ 1.6 billion spent by Kiwis visiting Australia in 2019.
Simply wishing for a return to normal, however, is not enough. The tourism rebuild must negotiate a delicate balance between immediate recovery and long term sustainability. A new steady-state equilibrium that generates employment and income while driving down tourism carbon emissions is required.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it was widely recognised that the global tourism system is economically and environmentally flawed. Our research has highlighted three main structural failures:
- low value (caused by growth in arrivals combined with declining spending)
- economic “leakage” (due to outbound tourism and the concentration of profit flowing to a few global players)
- high carbon emissions (from high-carbon transport dependence, increasing distance of travel and falling average length of stay).
This is an excerpt from an article by James Higham, originally published on The Conversation.