Comment – Ben Goodale: The death of tourism in NZ has been exaggerated

A couple of weeks into the school holidays, it will be interesting how tourism operators are viewing the new world they are living in. Some will perhaps realise it’s not the Armageddon that many seemed to be thinking it would be.

We heard a lot as we came out of lockdown of tourism operators closing and mothballing their offerings, because there were no tourists. This painted a very bleak picture of their future. However, let’s face facts. What Kiwi was rushing to go on holiday having just been through the shared national trauma of lockdown? The first reaction was to get back to “normal”, and in the first instance that’s interacting with friends and family, and getting back to work. To expect different behaviour was entirely naive.

But then let’s flip it. While the tourism sector wrung its hands, where did they expect Kiwis to go these school holidays, and beyond that, for all holidays as we settle down to the new normal of not being able to travel overseas and start to scan the internet for interesting NZ vacations. We can’t go anywhere else. And holidays are good for us, whether domestic or international.

There is some simple maths here. Total annual tourism expenditure in New Zealand last year was $40.9 billion of which $17.2 billion came from overseas. But Kiwis spend over $9b a year overseas. So that nets out at an $8b deficit; but it should be recognised that total annual tourism expenditure has increased by $13.8b, or 50 per cent, in the past six years. So yes, it’s a setback, but we are living in perhaps 2016 not 1975. And yes, some tourism ventures will unfortunately appeal little to Kiwis, and will have to remain mothballed. But others will flourish.

Witness Queenstown this last couple of weeks – visitor numbers up, ski fields smashed, car parks full, coffee running out, rented 4-wheel drives everywhere, restaurants heaving, the Earnslaw packing them in. And that’s just the school holidays.

Anyone who loves snow without the need to be there during school holidays will be looking forward to a ski trip over the coming weeks – people pre-kids, people with university age kids, and people with no kids. Hearing some of the ski fields are planning to be closed during the week after the next couple of weeks is hard to fathom; it’s like they are trying to drive people away. Similarly, this last week we witnessed cafes in Arrowtown desperate to close at 2pm and locking doors to stop more people coming in; not indicative of an industry believing it’s in crisis; these aren’t the people turning up on TV news sounding alarm bells.

What does this mean for the wider tourism industry these coming months? Fortune favours the bold, as we are here and right now, just need to be primed on where to go; Kiwis took 3 million trips in 2019! Regions need to work hard to “lift the lid” on why them.

Difference is vital: most Kiwis live near beaches, the ocean and the countryside, so defining why your beaches, ocean, and countryside, and of course place, are worth the expense of visiting is going to be crucial. To date, few have found their voice through a powerful domestic advertising campaign.

Dunedin has perhaps been the bravest, offering “castles and pyramids to wildlife and beaches”, declaring “It’s not exactly Edinburgh but it sort of is” and “It’s like Bali but with wetsuits”. That’s the sort of imagination other regions that could be overlooked need – Akaroa needs to dial up it’s Frenchness, the Bay of Islands that it’s like the Mediterranean, Invercargill like visiting some of those kooky US states like North Dakota. Fun can be had, generating conversations and interest.

Difference is vital: most Kiwis live near beaches, the ocean and the countryside, so defining why your beaches, ocean, and countryside, and of course place, are worth the expense of visiting is going to be crucial. To date, few have found their voice through a powerful domestic advertising campaign.

Dunedin has perhaps been the bravest, offering “castles and pyramids to wildlife and beaches”, declaring “It’s not exactly Edinburgh but it sort of is” and “It’s like Bali but with wetsuits”. That’s the sort of imagination other regions that could be overlooked need – Akaroa needs to dial up it’s Frenchness, the Bay of Islands that it’s like the Mediterranean, Invercargill like visiting some of those kooky US states like North Dakota. Fun can be had, generating conversations and interest.

While Tourism NZ might run a generic domestic tourism campaign, regional operators need to own their own future and beef their marketing up to fight for share of mind. It’s not business as usual and the target audience is very distinct. This is a unique opportunity to bring the people who never come, rather than preach to the converted that always come; but advertising and marketing has to be smarter than normal to cut through to the domestic market – be entertaining and creative, and distinctive. Budgets need to be increased, quality advertising minds engaged. Be cheesy and same same, don’t expect stellar results.

Ben Goodale is CEO of strategic marketing agency Quantum Jump