NEW ZEALAND TOURISM: From Chapter 11 of the memoir Compass Points
POLICY & DEVELOPMENT ISSUES 1980-94
Reading Ian McGibbon’s book Undiplomatic Dialogue on the Berendsen/McIntosh letters, I came across a 1947 letter from Alister McIntosh, the Secretary of External Affairs, commenting on an earlier note from Carl Berendsen, the New Zealand ambassador in Washington DC, asking why we are not pressing the tourist side in North America. The reply was, ‘It would be absolutely impossible. You cannot get a hotel in New Zealand and, if you do, you cannot get any service, because there are practically no servants, and those there are won’t serve … Any tourist coming to New Zealand … would spend the rest of his life telling his countrymen … what an appalling place New Zealand is.’ (p129).
By 1980 we had come a fair distance from that, but we still hadn’t quite made it. It was clear that spending money and effort to attract tourists to New Zealand was only a part of the story; the other half was about meeting their expectations once they arrived. I had often pondered whether a geo-political entity like New Zealand is best addressed as an economy or a society — perhaps more of that later, the short answer is a society — but for 15 years of my life it was neither, it was addressing New Zealand as a destination.
We always knew that strong word-of-mouth recommendations from visitors returning to their home country were an important ingredient to success, as were repeat visits. Another rationale for engaging in what went on in New Zealand was that overseas visitors used a great deal of non-commercial product, such as national parks, city facilities and beaches, so their costs and benefits to the economy could not be managed by the pricing and other policies of tourism firms.
At its core New Zealand’s diversity and scenery offered a great holiday experience. But at the next level down there was so much in the country that would seriously benefit from change and improvement and there we had to swing into action. We called this activity ‘development’.
The first step was to recruit staff competent in policy, research and the many requirements of development. We formed a new division, Planning and Development, and recruited Don Hayman as a skilled and dynamic director. The State Services Commission’s supportive role collapsed around this — it could not see why the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department NZTP should be allowed to employ graduate planners, a row we eventually won. In 1984, this division was split into Development and Liaison — this last reflecting its role of managing our new regional liaison officer network around the country — still headed by Don, and a Policy and Research Division under Val Jeal, an ex-Treasury officer wise in the labyrinth of interdepartmental policy formulation. June Hamilton and Monique Brocx were the finest possible leaders of our greatly expanded research programmes during the second half of the decade.
Initially, NZTP’s view of its, or central government’s, role operated a bit like a default mechanism: that is, we could become involved in anything that the private sector was clearly not doing. As the decade progressed, the government at a political level and through the Treasury imposed a more disciplined approach of becoming involved in activities only where there was clearly a case on the basis of public good or market failure. The main effect of this sharper view was felt after 1987 with the abolition of departmental activities that either subsidised the private sector or engaged in commercial competition with business. However, it did not really constrain many other activities funded from the department’s core vote that we thought were relevant to development and to maximising the benefits of increased tourism.
And so we got stuck in. We helped protect and enhance natural, built heritage and other public attractions; we developed new attractions; we eliminated eyesores and bottlenecks; we advised local authorities on ways of best meeting the needs of tourism growth; and we facilitated private and foreign investment. In our policy role we were particularly active in various stages of deregulation: over the decade, successively, with liquor, accommodation, taxis and other ground transport, and shop trading hours, as well as aviation. Often the tourism companies themselves were leading opponents of this, as beneficiaries of the protected status quo.
NZTP increased its input into regional, district and maritime planning schemes. All of these were highly liable to be scoped by their authors and approved by their bosses without recognising tourism issues. Normally the plans did not provide for tourism projects, which meant that applications had to go through a very drawn-out process. Over the second half of the decade dozens of submissions were made by the department on the draft schemes, and workshops organised by staff at local government conferences, resulting in much improved schemes allowing tourism investment to proceed, and for regions, cities and towns to gain stronger benefits from tourism.
NZTP also became involved in legislation covering local government schemes, making submissions on the operation of the Town and Country Planning Act, on streamlining procedures for dealing with applications, on better resourcing planning tribunals and arguing for negotiation and arbitration rather than litigation to resolve disputes. We won an amendment to the Act, requiring provision for tourism.
Later, when the bill that resulted in the Resource Management Act was under preparation, staff led by Ted Fraser made significant representations to allow for tourism. This continued with input into the national policy for coastal management issued under the RMA. The RMA subsequently seems to have become as much bogged down in detail as its predecessor — even a total change of legislation can fail to change a mindset.
Since many of New Zealand’s natural attractions lay within national parks or other parts of the conservation estate, our work involved a quite intensive dialogue with the Department of Lands and Survey or, after 1987, the Department of Conservation. Initially the NZTP effort was to support their efforts to meet the needs of tourism, in the face of some hostility from an environmental movement that was disposed to see nature tourism as an evil equal to mining or forestry.
My introduction to this hostility, which came as a surprise, was at the 1980 tourist industry conference in the Bay of Islands where resort developers described how they had surveyed the coast of Northland by helicopter and other means, and had identified a site near Kaitaia where they thought a resort could be built without negative environmental impacts. The possible exception was a small area of wetland, which they intended to protect. But in the debate that followed the environmentalists strongly, bitterly even, opposed the whole resort concept and many other aspects of tourism growth.
Thereafter we embarked on a long-term policy to win over the green movement. The department consistently supported, mainly within government rather than out in the public, environmental and conservation objectives such as the extension of national park boundaries, saving native forests from milling, and promoting the Act protecting Wild and Scenic Rivers. We developed the core argument that protecting these features did not mean forfeiting all economic benefits. Tourism activity such as whitewater rafting would be consistent with protecting the scenic and environmental values of, say, the Kawarau River as some return for prohibiting electricity generation or other more intrusive economic activities. We showed that tourism activity in native forest areas would create jobs in nature tourism. This gave the environmental movement an economic rationale for native forest protection, to counter the foresters’ view that the ‘greenies’ were a bunch of ‘economic lockout boys’.
This argument of economic benefits through tourism was increasingly used in the West Coast forest debates in the mid-’80s, and peaked during the 1987 struggle to save the North Island Whirinaki Forest, by which time the claims, by others not me, of the job-creating potential of native forest tourism had become more than a bit exaggerated. But by such interactions a comfortable relationship between tourism and the environmental movement developed, with the latter at least accepting that tourism was a benign form of development compared with extractive industries.
The most expensive and protracted project in support of tourism in natural areas was the upgrading of the facilities at Milford Sound. By 1980 this attraction had overtaken the earlier icons of New Zealand tourism, the Bay of Islands, Pohutu Geyser and Mt Cook, and probably qualified to be ranked as New Zealand’s preeminent attraction. An American businessman said to me, ‘You New Zealanders are so clever promoting Milford Sound as your greatest, must-see attraction. With everyone landing in Auckland it means they have to travel the whole length of the country, see it, and then go all the way back.’ He likened it to supermarkets putting their best specials at the back of the shop, so customers walked the length of the aisles to get to them. I accepted his compliment but privately wished we had been so clever to promote Milford Sound particularly for this reason.
Visitor numbers grew and the facilities there had not kept pace. More car and coach parks, more wharf space for launches, and better buildings and facilities were all needed. Ownership of key sections was divided between the Department of Land and Survey, the Tourist Hotel Corporation, Ministry of Transport and others, and responsibilities for activities and approvals were also split between various authorities. The land around the Milford Sound visitor area lay within a national park, and nobody responsible for national parks was much supportive of further development there. The local regional council was responsible for what happened on and in the water of Milford Sound.
Master plans for development had been drawn up in previous years, during the 1970s, but never implemented. I felt we should start with the one most recently completed, which had been commissioned by Lands and Survey and some private sector operators, rather than start from scratch. First round discussions with Lands and Survey revealed a willingness to address the plan, but no resources. It was argued to us that before the full feasibility of the plan could be determined, test dredging of the bed of the sound — actually a fjord — was necessary where the extended wharf was proposed, and they couldn’t fund that. To break that impasse I closed my eyes and found the $88,000 required from our funds. That done, more detailed engineering and design plans were needed. It was painful and I know the process would have foundered if it were not for NZTP’s persistence, reflected in the efforts of Don Hayman and others.
By 1984 or ’85 much of the preparatory and paper work was done but still the system was seized up. It was apparent that heads really need to be banged and I proposed to the minister, Mike Moore, that a meeting be convened in his office of all the principal players. He readily agreed and needless to say put his personal enthusiasm and office behind the scheme with great effect.
The Ministry of Works and Development and then the new Department of Conservation became more seriously involved. During the late 1980s our new Director of Development Ted Fraser became NZTP’s principal nursemaid for the project. The project was extensive, involving dredging and reclamation, wharf expansion, visitor circulation, visitor information, water supply, toilets, sewage disposal and all the rest, and then planning consents. A Milford Sound Development Consortium was formed to co-ordinate the activity.
The department continued to facilitate meetings and to pump modest, breakthrough or seed money into engineering and design work. Finally, around 1990, the project was ready to run, except for funding. A $12 million package was prepared involving the government in providing a $3 million grant and guaranteeing a $6 million loan, while the companies raised a $5 levy per launch passenger. Cabinet approved this. A new administering body, the Milford Development Authority, was set up.
The handsome new wharf and buildings, with over two hectares of reclamation and a breakwater, roads and parking, walkways and landscaping and other facilities were finally opened in 1991. The achievement involved new forms of co-operation between central government agencies, local governments and the private sector. It involved creative responses to significant environmental issues. Ten years!
Another big project came around 1986/87, the centenary of the first national park in New Zealand. Our evidence was telling us that the great walks of the South Island might be nearing capacity, and we obtained approval for a grant of about $1 million to construct another, the Kepler Track, as a tourism contribution to the centenary. I was greatly attracted to DOC’s proposal that this was the best track option since, unlike the existing tracks, it provided for a four-day loop where walkers ended back at their starting point. It was the first new major walking track constructed in New Zealand for at least one or two decades.
A large grant of around $800,000 from NZTP permitted the upgrading of the Mt Cook National Park visitor area. This was a fraught and problematic project because DOC and its engineers did not themselves seem convinced that they had the right solution. At the opening we were aware that the area was much improved, but as my minister said to me, it was not easy to see where so much money had gone. Sadly this visitor centre needed more drastic redesign during the 1990s.
Tourism growth impacted on the built environment too, often heavily. This was a vast field. We engaged with infrastructure issues focusing on roads. The rapid trend to independent travellers involved both more vehicles on the roads and more drivers in an exploratory frame of mind. It was not hard to conclude that the road funding system ignored the economic importance of tourism: there was, for example, special provision for funding forestry roads, while rural roads for farming needs were assured by the historic dominance of farmer representation on local councils. The main need was to seal certain roads used by tourists as the through routes between tourist centres or as scenic routes, but which did not have enough normal traffic to warrant upgrading.
Our campaign started around 1983, directed within government and specifically at the Ministry of Works and Development. It took at least two years to bear fruit but in mid-decade the allocation for tourist-related roads was greatly increased. The campaign continued after the demise of that ministry and the establishment of Transit New Zealand as the relevant authority. We identified the priority roads needed for tourism, concentrating on the Coromandel Peninsula and Southland-Otago, and with industry association and company support made a professional case for these to be recognised in the funding priorities of Transit New Zealand. The head of Transit NZ, Robin Dunlop, took a constructive approach and committed to sealing these roads, where they were state highways in his jurisdiction, over a reasonable period of time. By the mid-’90s all the roads on our list had been attended to, and the country’s capacity to handle growing tourist vehicle volumes greatly enhanced.
There was one road-related project of a rather different nature. While Derek Quigley was Minister of Tourism in 1981 I heard a few whispers about discussions between ministers and others over a major project being developed with great secrecy, but took a while to get a briefing on it. Then early on a Monday morning I was rung by the property magnate Bob Jones and told that the prime minister (Robert Muldoon) had agreed to a scheme to beautify New Zealand by plantings along all major roads. It was Jones’s idea to do this on a vast scale, so that the country would look like no other to drive through — a nation garlanded with flowers and shrubs. It would become hugely famous for this feature, and attract monumental tourism growth. To achieve and maintain it would require a small army of nurseries and gardeners, and the training of people for the job would greatly enhance New Zealand’s horticultural capability.
Jones pressed hard but nothing could be done until a proposal worked its way through government. Ministers, of course, would not have heard that the prime minister had ‘approved’ the scheme the night before over a drink with Bob Jones.
As an aside, Jones told me later that during that Sunday night talk he had said to Mr Muldoon that if he agreed to the scheme it would be the decision that he would be most remembered for in history. The PM replied, according to Jones, ‘No, I will be most remembered for CER,’ meaning Closer Economic Relations with Australia.
It took a week or two to get a cabinet paper drafted and agreed. It approved the scheme in principle and agreed to the organisational requirements for progressing it. There was no approval at that stage to allocate the millions of dollars that would be required to implement it. It was the department’s role to carry the project forward, a task I firmly felt it was not well placed to carry out and I made sure that the small secretariat included staff from the Lands and Survey Department and the Ministry of Works and Development (MWD). At the top level we formed a steering committee of eminent citizens, such as architect and landscaper Sir Miles Warren, who was a very able chairman, and representatives of the other government agencies that needed to be involved.
These meetings made great progress defining a way to proceed and eventually the day came in mid-1982 when a second paper went to cabinet about implementation and cost. Before cabinet I was called to see the deputy and on the day acting prime minister, Jim McLay. He was clearly uncomfortable about allocating large sums to the scheme, given the state of the economy at the time, and was seeking a way to reduce or avoid the commitment without just rejecting it. I said that since the MWD maintained the road verges, and already had facilities like nurseries, the project should be assigned to them. He was delighted and took that suggestion into cabinet.
NZTP maintained an active support role, but we were thankfully not the implementing body required to run nurseries, bulldozer fleets and a host of gardeners. A fair bit was done, but the ministry was never given sufficient funds to carry out the scheme on the grand scale envisaged by Bob Jones.
In the early 1980s we were able to get funding for the Tourism Facilities Development Scheme. This was a modest but highly useful programme under which many facilities other than accommodation could obtain a government loan or a government guarantee for a loan. Projects such as Napier’s Marineland, Rotorua’s Agrodome and Taupo’s Huka Village benefitted. Then in 1984 a new Labour government was elected and Mike Moore appointed the Minister of Tourism. The buzz around the public sector at that time about the new cabinet was twofold: that they had been out of office for so long that it would be difficult to establish normal working relationships between them and their senior public servants, and that they had all been watching the British comedy show Yes Minister which exactly covered this topic with a devious permanent secretary manipulating his minister and they, the new ministers, seriously believed it.
I rang Mike Moore when his appointment was announced to congratulate him, tell him we had a brief prepared and ask what else he might want. He let forth a string of ideas to which I variously responded with comments such as, ‘That could work’, ‘We could explore that’, ‘That would be a good fit with …’ and so on. After a while there was a short break and I said, ‘You may have noticed I’m trying to reply positively without actually saying “Yes Minister”.’ He roared with laughter and proved a great minister over the next three years.
But more to the point, in the Lange government’s first budget he won an additional $7 million for tourism. I proposed to him that instead of putting it all into marketing, we should assign $2 million for development assistance. This was the origin of the Community and Public Sector grants scheme (CAPS), which enabled the minister to make grants for non-commercial tourism projects.
The scheme gave NZTP a huge capacity to move in key areas of tourism development with a focus on natural and heritage conservation. It continued for many years, although in the 1990s it was reduced by budget cutbacks. It helped historic restorations, wildlife centres, walkways, museums, lookouts and viewing platforms, interpretation and information centres, and national park developments — although there was always a notional cap on the last stemming from the minister’s reluctance to transfer significant tourism funding to the Department of Conservation on the grounds that the money was won for tourism, and if DOC needed more it should fight and get it itself.
From time to time we formed, and then closed when they had fulfilled their purpose, a series of other smaller, specialised grant schemes. Each was designed to kick-start a needed activity, or provide seed money for others to take up or solve a particular problem. One was the Roadside Information Kiosk Scheme, which reflected the information needs of the new and burgeoning independent market, our research showing visitor dissatisfaction with information availability and signposting, and an initial reluctance by local governments to address the situation. Grants were made for all-weather information boards to a standardised format on roadside parking areas on the approaches to towns. It produced a core network of about 40 information kiosks around the country before we closed it off.
Another was the Dump Station Subsidy Scheme introduced in response to an environmental outcry over the dumping of human waste by campervanners. There were very few dump stations where the burgeoning number of campervan users could discharge their waste and in most areas neither local governments nor commercial camping ground operators were willing to face up to the responsibility and cost. An information booklet with a preferred design was prepared and distributed and a $500 subsidy paid for each dump station installed. It served its purpose and was wound up after two years.
It was evident in the early ’80s that tourism could greatly benefit from increased heritage protection and access: other countries made use of historic and heritage buildings and other aspects of cultural heritage to increase visitor numbers and the yield from tourism. I followed closely the work of the PATA Development Authority in this field: it ran a series of pioneering biennial conferences around the PATA region on tourism and heritage, and I encouraged linkages between its work and what New Zealand needed. Rodney Davies was a New Zealand planner much engaged, Tony Staniford at the National Travel Association was keen, and John Daniels at the Historic Places Trust was fully supportive. We developed a relationship based on recognition that historic places could benefit tourism by adding to its product range, and tourism could benefit historic restoration by increasing the flow of paying visitors to these sites. In some ways it was a relationship-building exercise similar to that with environmentalists, except that it started from a much less antagonistic base.
NZTP developed promotional material that would bring more visitors into the available historic places and was able to give a large number of grants and other assistance to individual heritage projects.
We also had a look at the larger townscapes of New Zealand to identify what was available to build on as a tourism and heritage resource. A staff study concluded that three had particular heritage qualities and tourism potential: Napier with its art deco, Oamaru with its Victorian white stone buildings and Akaroa, the former French settlement on Banks Peninsula.
Napier was the first cab off this rank. We found a small volunteer group there that was struggling without community recognition, trying to develop a design guide to assist building owners upgrading their buildings, or developers planning new buildings, to preserve or act in sympathy with the art deco style. This was before CAPS came into existence so our ability to provide funding was limited, but some money was given to enable the guide to be completed and published. Subsequent grants were given to help implement the first landscaping upgrade designed to reinforce art deco styles in street lamps and other features.
At PATA meetings I met an American, Robbie Collins, based in Singapore, who was a significant figure in international tourism and heritage and a member of the Unesco body that designated sites for world heritage recognition. When he visited New Zealand I asked him to go to Napier as an add-on and write up his thoughts on the city’s art deco potential. He was somewhat critical of the lack of effort in the city and made clear there was a fair distance to go before it could contemplate a successful application for Unesco recognition, but I sent his report to the mayor with confirmation of the department’s support. Around this time or soon after Napier came to its own realisation about its art deco heritage and since then has made it all work wonderfully. The department’s role is lost in the mists of time.
A grant to Oamaru was also timely in the earlier stages of the conservation and promotion of the buildings there. An article in the journal of the Historic Places Trust identified the importance of this grant and the department’s early support.
Akaroa took longer. It was not until around 1992, when the grant scheme was under the administration of the Ministry of Tourism, that a contribution was made to building preservation there. This was useful in terms of saving and enhancing one key building but was not as seminal as the other two.
The two established tourist towns, Rotorua and Queenstown, were both under pressure from tourism growth. They became the only places outside the main centres where we located a Regional Liaison Office which, among many other things, constantly tried to get locally run tourist offices and the local governments to focus on tourism development issues and not just promotion.
With Rotorua, there was the ongoing issue that many in the town basically regarded it as a forestry and agricultural centre, despite its strong tourism history. That led to attitudes among city elders that while tourism growth was welcome, it was largely up to the tourist industry to provide the attractions and support and to make it happen. It also led from time to time to stories of popular discontent about how tourists were overcrowding the city. Once I had these investigated. It turned out that a couple of commuters were used to driving unimpeded to work each day but now sometimes they had to wait at traffic lights for half a minute, sharing the space with a tourist bus or rental car.
Early on, data about the reduction of geothermal activity seemed to threaten Rotorua’s tourism future. Mud pool, hot lake and geyser activity was declining apparently due to the drawdown of underground geothermal steam by private bores used mainly for heating. The department took up this issue with various central government agencies and the local authority, but the latter in particular was hamstrung by its relationship with its ratepayers who were long dependent on their bores. I concede to making little progress when Basil Walker took over as head of the new Ministry of Energy, at which point his initiatives, backed by his ministry’s statutory powers, led to closure of private bores within a certain radius of Whakarewarewa/Pohutu geyser.
Later I took to a meeting with the mayor John Keaney the results of some market research into repeat visits by Australian skiers to Coronet Peak. This showed that the initial visit was the attraction of powder snow, with the skiers at that stage largely unaware of Queenstown, but that for many repeat visitors it was the attraction of Queenstown and après ski as much as the snow that brought them back. In other words the town and its ambience was as much the attraction as the specific tourist facilities. I thought there was a message for Rotorua in that, it could not just rely on geothermal activities. I waved the same message around in the local newspaper.
John explained various difficulties; I offered to ‘go halves’ on bringing out an international urban designer to develop a plan for Rotorua if that would help. It took a little time until the city finally put serious resources into upgrading its lakeside and townscape to become a much more attractive destination.
Queenstown on the other hand had few delusions that it was anything but a tourist destination, but the boom of 1985/86 put it under real pressure. NZTP set up a system by which tourists arriving without bookings and unable to find accommodation could contact a central point, to which providers with spare rooms could also make their vacancies known. It offered an essential service over two peak seasons. There were persistent issues of accommodation for staff in tourism businesses and basic infrastructure overload, including an inadequate telephone exchange. We worked with the local authority and published with the Tourism Council a book called Growing Pains discussing how such problems could be addressed. It was a remarkable effort, led by Peter Brooks, the deputy general manager at the time.
Christchurch is much more than a tourist town and we did not aspire to advise it on how to manage its affairs. But we engaged with particular projects there, not always with great success. The strategy of widening New Zealand’s range of attractions and developing year-round, winter and wet-weather attractions led us to look at two transport-related projects. Motat, Auckland’s transport museum, was well developed but lacked the space to expand to achieve the sort of international class facility that we had in mind. Ferrymead Park in Christchurch on the other hand was an extensive area only partially developed, incorporating an artificial historic village of old houses and shops brought in from other places, together with some outstanding restored old vehicles such as trams and fire engines, some other remarkable collections including one of old musical instruments, and a tram ride around the park. It was ripe with potential and, since it was a volunteer trust rather than a private company, it was possible for NZTP to get quite heavily involved.
The Ferrymead directors were at first keen to think big about the future. I appointed David Riquish to be our liaison point and also to prepare an audit, development plan and strategy for the facility, which he did, with local help and assistance from Lands and Survey, producing a comprehensive and professional document. Over time with the directors we reviewed their management structure, funding, marketing and investment plans as well as providing grants. While many improvements resulted, the project never progressed as strongly as we had hoped. A lesson was the limitations of volunteer as opposed to professional operations, and the complexity of moving from one to the other without losing the remarkable enthusiasm that comes from groups like volunteer restorers of fire engines and steam trains.
I became attracted to Christchurch’s potential as a centre for Antarctic-related activities, thinking of it as the ‘Gateway to Antarctica’. Mike Moore pushed the idea further, calling it the ‘Capital of Antarctica’. Around 1987 I wrote a lengthy letter to the mayor with a set of ideas for realising the gateway concept, ranging from developing an integrated Antarctic product involving the major Antarctic libraries, the Antarctic wing of the Canterbury Museum, houses used by the explorers and other related features; using this product to attract tourist ships travelling to the Antarctica or interested in providing an Antarctic experience without actually visiting the continent; targeting Antarctic-related conferences and meetings (of which there were a great number); and even designating the main route from central Christchurch to the port of Lyttelton as an Avenue of Antarctica, with statues of Antarctic explorers. I can’t recall a reply.
I started a dialogue with the director of the Canterbury Museum, arguing that the Antarctic wing should be upgraded to be the world’s best Antarctic Museum, a must-see facility for everyone interested in Antarctica, and to say that the department would provide a major grant for any reasonable project to realise this vision. But the museum had other priorities and limited space and despite trying over several years it did not happen in my time.
Fortunately the subsequent and visionary idea from Christchurch International Airport to set up the Antarctic centre there as a new visitor attraction served much of the purpose.
A great personal benefit from this was that the government agency that ran New Zealand’s Antarctic operations at Scott Base invited me in the summer of 1988 to Scott Base on a week-long trip that included two other guests: Jim Ellis, the head of DSIR and Geoffrey Palmer, the Deputy Prime Minister, guided by Hugh Logan, director of the Antarctic Division. We landed at the US air base at McMurdo and transferred to ours, Scott Base, two kilometres away. There was an immediate contrast between the two. McMurdo, colloquially called MacTown, was a town and a pretty untidy one at that. It had probably grown like Topsy and its dark brown buildings stood harsh on the landscape. Scott Base was a gentle intrusion by comparison, its standardised, low-rise light green facilities resting attractively on the stark white surrounds.
But I found another contrast talking to scientists over the week: the Americans were always placing their work in some big scheme of things. If they were measuring water in some way, it was part of a big operation to get a fix on how the earth’s climate might be changing. You felt it was really important. The New Zealand scientists simply said what they were doing, such as measuring the water flow from glaciers. They were not salesmen.
The most adventurous outing was by American helicopter to the New Zealand Vanda base, in the Dry Valley beside Lake Vanda. The scientists there had a night function and performance called the Vanda Drambers (Drambuie liqueur) Unity for the rare groups of visitors for which they all dressed up, made particular sorts of speeches, songs and games, inducted the visitors into the VDU and generally had a hilarious evening. I have never put VDU after my name but felt it was a real privilege to belong.
We were told of another ceremony, of qualifying for the Vanda Swim Club. This was presented as obligatory, the requirement being to strip naked and plunge into a hole maybe three metres square cut into the ice on the lake. We were told with overt admiration that Ruth Richardson, soon to be Minister of Finance, had done it on a recent visit. The other members of the group declined to participate, but at the last minute when we were due to pack and head for the helicopter I decided I would. I told the scientist with me and slipped into the hut to change into minimum clothes and collect a towel. I was amazed that when I appeared beside the pool the whole establishment was there. The word would have beaten wildfire for rapid spread. I finished stripping, jumped in and was out so quickly I hardly felt the cold, but the applause from the surrounding slopes was strong and sustained.
On the way back to Scott Base we passed by Marble Point, a flat stony area by the Ross Sea, with a US hut at one end and a US flag at the other. Later we were told that it was about the only place for a hard, year-round landing strip, and that no one had used it until the Chinese came looking for a site for a base and were attracted to this. The US promptly moved in with its flag and building to pre-empt that use of the site.
The episode, even if it did not happen quite like that, reinforced a view I was developing that effective sovereignty did not relate to the large pieces of pie-shaped national claims marked out on the map of Antarctica but to the actual locations of man-made structures. A country could seemingly place a structure on anyone’s claimed territory and no one was going to remove it or its occupants. It effectively exercised sovereignty over that site, being responsible for law enforcement and everything else needed. I thought that if New Zealand could see a site in Antarctica that it might wish to have for a future use, it should put a hut and a flag on it and effectively claim it.
Back in Wellington I wrote a report on my visit that articulated that view, and distributed it interdepartmentally. I knew it would be dismissed by Antarctic Treaty specialists and I certainly received no feedback from it. Until then most thoughts about commercial use of Antarctica had related to minerals but I thought that tourism was a much more likely sector. Why not put a hut and a flag on the best site for an Antarctic hotel in our part of the continent, probably Cape Roberts, even if nothing else happened there for 20 years? Instead New Zealand closed its Vanda base, and by that lost more than just its scientific capability there. However, new things rarely happen on the basis of a piece of paper but I was swamped with too many other things to prioritise a follow-up, although others in the department did for a while without obvious results.
But the paper must have been filed by someone because some 25 years later I received a phone call from an old friend, Giff Davidson, saying he was reading a new history of Antarctica (Antarctica: A Biography by David Day of Monash University) which had an extensive discussion about my correspondence relating to tourism and sovereignty. So I bought a copy and was mildly surprised to find that over two pages (511–513) were devoted to this. He states, ‘Whether or not he realised it, Plimmer was proposing a new way of looking at sovereignty in the Antarctic’! It is probably my main claim to fame, being cited in a professional history! The much later situation of China placing a facility and flag on rocks and islands in the South China Sea seems an analogous approach.
The landscape and wildlife of Antarctica are stunning and it is inevitable that tourism interest in it will grow. It will offer New Zealand business opportunities and will need careful management.
To return to the main story, NZTP helped towns and attractions beyond those main centres improve themselves for tourism in a host of other ways. With the New Zealand PATA chapter we arranged for a PATA task force to visit the West Coast in 1989. It proved highly successful, and more of its recommendations should have been implemented. That was followed by one to the Coromandel, in 1991, which also was well received and set the pattern for longer-term development in that region. Then at the instigation of the New Zealand PATA chapter, a third came to Wellington. The department assisted innumerable other historic and cultural attractions with direct grants, from Katherine Mansfield’s Birthplace in Wellington to Hokitika’s Quayside to Auckland’s Maritime Museum.
On another track, the department administered on behalf of the Crown significant land areas in the North Island relevant to tourism. Some of this land, at Rotorua and Taupo, was transferred or semi-privatised and some of it, at Whakarewarewa, developed with great difficulty. The largest that we retained was the Wairakei Tourist Park. This was a wide area just north of Taupo with thermal and river values including Huka Falls, assigned to the department around 1946 for tourism development purposes. Unfortunately no one assigned the department funds for development, so ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ was the order of the day. NZTP had set up and chaired an interdepartmental committee to manage the park, giving the departments with an interest in it a shared sense of ownership. They all contributed, usually in kind rather than cash, to planning and development. Throughout the ’80s this worked exceptionally well: roads were sealed, signposts and interpretation upgraded, walkways and fences constructed, native plant areas rejuvenated, and new areas opened up.
We looked for revenue through concessions and decided to switch from passive response to actively seeking applications. This worked to a degree: a horse riding concession, a Country Music Hall of Fame, and other concessions were approved. The investment of these operators added value to the park, but the revenue to the department was small, with rents from struggling concessionaires often unpaid. They were people who were stronger on operating than on marketing. The plantation forests in the park held some revenue prospects. The first return from this source came when Cyclone Bola prematurely flattened some of the trees, and the sale of these gave the committee a real boost. A total upgrade of the path and signage system of the Craters of the Moon was one result. Around the end of the decade, planned milling was able to commence.
The desire to open and develop the park was always within a constrained land use concept: a consensus that Wairakei Park should be used for low-impact tourism, with a strong emphasis on retaining the naturalness of the land. I also had a sense of retaining it for future decisions and development — that is, not to rush with irreversible investments but to have the area ‘in reserve,’ so to speak, for future decisions and purposes. It was the only piece of land in government ownership designated for tourism development, and it was large and strategically located. I felt that the department left it well managed and looking pretty good.
To switch from land to people, there was a staff and employment side to destination development and it was hard not to be troubled, in 1980, about the standard of service in New Zealand tourism. The question of how best to address this and lift our game was always to the forefront over the following ten years. The underlying issues were numerous: New Zealand’s hotels in the main were based on liquor and public bars, rather than accommodation, restaurant and meetings-focused; New Zealanders in the industry often confused service with servitude, and felt that it was against the national character to be servile; the prevalence of small and family-owned businesses meant an insufficient investment in staff training; and our isolation led to a lack of understanding about tourists’ expectations and particularly, as the decade progressed, about how to meet the needs of visitors from non-Anglo Saxon cultures. New Zealand needed to pay some concentrated attention to staff training and skills development.
Even within the department there was initial puzzlement about tourism training. Because of NZTP’s past focus on travel sales through the Government Tourist Bureaus, many staff assumed that this meant training staff in travel agency type work. It was the only industry training they were familiar with. The Aviation and Travel Industry Training Board had a similar focus.
A staff member, Jeff Gibb, carried out a review of the industry’s training arrangements and needs. The focus was on hotel and motel staff, but tour companies, ski field operators or any others in tourism could be encompassed. With a fair bit of outside help from knowledgeable people such as Jim Thompson he produced a useful starting document. It served as a basis to talk to the industry and set directions.
Concurrently the industry association steadily strengthened its role in training. When it restructured and renamed itself the Tourist Industry Federation (TIF) in the mid-’80s it established an Education and Training Authority with Stuart Long from the THC in the chair. It commissioned a training needs analysis from Ron Moore of Otago University. The department helped organise a major conference in Christchurch with Jim Thompson in the chair to ensure action on the results, and that led to a decision between the department and TIF to set up a dedicated organisation based in the department to promote nationally the staffing and training needs of the tourism sector. It was called the Tourism Human Resources Development Unit (THRDU) with Paul McNabb as it director. It identified the human resource needs of the industry and had a major impact on upskilling the industry. The issue of consistent, high quality service was not totally resolved, but it was thoroughly recognised and addressed.
The department’s efforts to attract overseas hotel chains had, in my mind at least, as much a training objective as marketing and capacity objectives. We hoped that the first, the Sheraton in Auckland, would set international service standards that would flow through the rest of the industry. The second, the Regent (now Stamford Plaza), exposed the deep-seated nature of the problem. It refused to recruit any staff with a role of dealing with the public who had worked before in a New Zealand hotel. It took mainly young people direct from school and put them through the full Regent six weeks of intensive training before letting them emerge. I visited this in progress to cheer them on, although I had another motive as well: the 1984 PATA conference was due to commence and we needed the Regent to be at least in soft opening mode to take the media contingent to ensure a successful event. The result of the Regent’s training approach was exhilarating: the staff provided a superb New Zealand style of service, without a hint of subservience, that made Kiwis proud and left overseas visitors highly satisfied.
Japan was one of the key drivers of New Zealand tourism growth in the 1980s, and it was also one of the most demanding, fastidious even. The issues were complex, relating to language, food, expectations and cultural differences on a broad front. NZTP brought out Japanese experts to hold seminars around the country for operators dealing with Japanese visitors, and then commenced a series of Japan Travel Market Reports which covered issues of how to do business in Japan and the cultural differences likely to be found with Japanese visitors in New Zealand. In 1988, with the return of David Lynch from Tokyo, we set up a Japan Development Unit under his charge in Auckland. The focus was on standards, quality and language especially in the tour guiding and accommodation businesses.
Around that time the THRDU was also able to start addressing the training needs of the Japanese market by launching the Japan Skills Programme. By 1991 the industry on the whole had a justifiably high level of confidence in its ability to provide quality service to the Japan market, and the experience gained was starting to shift to other Asian markets that were also generating significant arrivals. The PATA NZ chapter led the way in producing in the early ’90s the first Korea Skills Programme.
A visit to our Vancouver office provided a new idea for training and service. The major departmental store, Eaton’s, was publicising that its entire staff had been trained in Super Host. This was a short (one day or so) course designed on the premise that many businesses that did not feel they were a part of the tourism industry in fact dealt with large numbers of tourists and impacted on those tourists’ impressions of Canada. Banks, petrol stations, departmental stores and many others qualified in terms of this approach. The Super Host programme was designed to give staff from these businesses an understanding of their role relative to overseas visitors, and the basic skills to meet tourist expectations.
The benefit of a similar scheme in New Zealand appeared to be high, while the costs looked manageable given that every participant was paid for by the employer. I asked David Burt to lead a small team to investigate how best to set up such a scheme and this came up with the name and structure for Kiwi Host. It was launched in 1990 under the management of Mary Alice Arthur and was a roaring success. Firms such as the Bank of New Zealand and Whitcoulls put all their New Zealand staff through it. Key ingredients were its direct availability — it did not require prior enrolment in an educational institution — its low cost and its devolved management, which won widespread regional and local support. It was privatised by the Tourism Board in the late’90s.
Running competitions and recognising outstanding achievement was one of the obvious ways to lift industry standards, and throughout the decade the department’s biennial Tourism Design Awards were expanded, made more demanding and given higher prestige recognition. The focus was not so much on service but the parallel issue of the standard of the facilities themselves, and of related products such as souvenirs. The intention was to reach out to designers, architects, landscape architects and planners as well as the industry’s developers, owners and managers. Awards were given for new accommodation, outstanding attractions such as Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World, historic building restoration, publications, souvenirs and more. In 1991 we decided to integrate these awards with the TIF’s annual award programme and they became appropriately an industry activity. Their history exactly fitted the department’s philosophy of developing activities where the industry was short on capability, and of handing over when that capability became available.
Auckland International Airport came onto our problem list with big delays in passenger processing times, through customs, immigration, agriculture inspection and baggage handling, of two and sometimes even three hours. We sought cabinet approval for a part of the departure tax, at that time collected by the central government, to be committed to airport improvement. This ran into unyielding Treasury opposition, based on the assertion that it would be a tied tax.
Discussions with the bosses in Wellington, such as the Comptroller of Customs and the Director General of Agriculture, produced a sympathetic response but the delays were a difficult nut to crack. At times the blame was passed to the baggage handlers. But raising this issue with their employers, Air New Zealand, was not productive either. Basically each organisation was preoccupied with its own imperatives that related to employment conditions, trade unions and the cost of labour.
One area where the department may have had an effect was in changing the attitudes of the airport’s visitor processing staff. We were able to persuade the managers of the agencies that staff should attend courses about tourism. These strengthened their perception that they were in the front line of New Zealand’s tourism, the country’s biggest and fastest growing foreign exchange earning sector, and that they should create a good first impression for visitors — hence weakening any self-perception that they were solely ‘policing’ New Zealand’s borders.
The saviour, for processing times, was the privatisation of the airport. The department was generally comfortable with this prospect, but raised the merits of seeking certain protections — for example, against the possibility of asset stripping by a new owner, particularly of the land acquired for a future second runway at Auckland airport. Eventually sale was approved, with the surprising provision that the new owners could set the level of and keep the departure ‘charge’ — a decision that would have been promoted by Treasury to maximise the price for the sale but obviously at odds with its earlier view that this was a tax that could not be tied. There was no other country that I could find that had privatised the right to levy a tax such as this, but in a way it was the ultimate victory in that earlier battle to have this revenue source used for airport improvement rather than general taxation. It was a great by-product of airport privatisation that the visitor processing problem was solved.
I can end this chapter with an unfulfilled goal — a longstanding ambition to establish a one to five star grading system, particularly for the accommodation sector, as part of offering visitors an assurance of standards over what they were purchasing. But when the department was abolished in late 1991, the need was still there. A group of hotel owners in strong positions in their sector was adamantly opposed to the concept, in some cases, I could only assume, because the standard of their product was likely to receive a lower grading than they were advertising. It is a matter of great pleasure to note that the Tourism Board was able to institute such a system during the first half of the ’90s, and to see that it, Qualmark, has since gone from strength to strength.