Heather du Plessis-Allan: Tourism Minister Stuart Nash must adjust his approach

OPINION:

It’s unlikely Stuart Nash would’ve wanted the headlines and the reaction he got from hisfirst outing as the new Tourism Minister.

In a speech to the industry on Tuesday, Nash outlined his plans to focus on attracting high-value tourists over badly-behaved freedom campers. He must have failed to register what, I’m told, was a sense of surprise in the room. The hint that he failed to register that is the fact he then spent some of that afternoon and the following morning doubling down on his comments.

Soon, what had started as a focus on attracting wealthy tourists turned into an attack on backpackers and freedom campers who “shit in our waterways”.

If he had failed to read the room initially, he must by now realise how off-key his comments are. Tourism operators and tourism industry leaders have lined up to express disappointment.

For businesses that rely on those backpackers and freedom campers, it must be
terrifying to be faced with a new Tourism Minister prepared to slag them off in public.

For industry bosses, it must be worrying that Nash is prepared to make such an
agenda-defining speech without perhaps first taking their views on the industry they know best. It says a lot that even Tourism Holdings chief executive Grant Webster tried to publicly hose down Nash’s comments. The salient point is that Webster is on Nash’s team. He is the co-chair of the Government’s taskforce preparing a report for Nash into how to reshape the industry.

What must also be worrying tourism bosses is that this is the best idea their new minister has.

There is nothing novel in the idea that New Zealand must target high-value tourists. We’ve been doing it for some years now. And while Nash is obviously able to pick politically popular positions, he’s demonstrated no understanding of the complexities of the industry.

Yes, many Kiwis will love his ambition to stop freedom campers who “shit in our waterways”. No, he will not be able to stop that by banning campervans that aren’t self-contained, because those campers will simply hire or buy a different vehicle, grab a tent for overnighting and do it anyway.

While the reaction from the tourism industry hasn’t been surprising, the reaction from
the public has been. As popular as his sentiments should be, his approach has
proven remarkably unpopular. That may be because of the perception of elitism, which feels out of step with the party he belongs to. Labour has long been a party of the blue collar worker. For Nash to so openly reject the backpacker – and freedom camper – children of blue (and even white) collar workers around the world in favour of the very rich tourist who “comes in, flies business class or premium economy, hires a helicopter” is uncomfortable.

Nash will probably have to adjust his approach after this. He can’t afford to take a Police Minister approach to tourism. This portfolio is simply not as binary. There aren’t clearly defined goodies and baddies in tourism like there are in the police portfolio. There are, instead, thousands of Kiwis whose livelihoods depend on international tourists who haven’t turned up for eight months and most likely won’t turn up for even longer yet.

There is a glimmer of hope here for the industry, though. This feels like a lazy mis-step from Nash rather than a sign of trouble to come. After the last tourism minister, Nash will be an improvement, and at least he’s demonstrated that he’s engaged and prepared to make changes. He might just want to ask them first what they think of those changes.

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