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We might not always like backpackers, but we’d miss them if they never came back (Getty Images)
We might not always like backpackers, but we’d miss them if they never came back (Getty Images)

BusinessNovember 19, 2020

In defence of backpackers

We might not always like backpackers, but we’d miss them if they never came back (Getty Images)
We might not always like backpackers, but we’d miss them if they never came back (Getty Images)

Stuart Nash wants to refocus the tourism industry on high-net-worth individuals. But younger, poorer travellers have much to offer too, writes Alex Braae.

Backpackers and freedom campers are easy groups of people to hate. They drive vans with stupid slogans written on them. They’ve got a reputation – possibly unfair – for white-guy dreadlocks and intermittent showering.

And according to new tourism minister Stuart Nash, they’re shitting in the rivers and they’ve got to go. Speaking to Radio NZ, he said there would be a new focus on “high-net-worth individuals”, and the country would no longer be subsidising the likes of freedom campers. Among the measures he talked about was a ban on hiring non-self-contained vans to tourists. 

One of the biggest groups using these sorts of vehicles to get around is people you’d loosely call backpackers – young people on working holiday visas who want to see as much of the country as they can. They’ve long been considered a problem in the parts of the country hit with over-tourism, particularly because they put pressure on facilities also used by locals. 

Nash asked, “Do you think that we want to become a destination for those freedom campers and backpackers who don’t spend much, and leave the high-net-worth individuals to other countries?”

The problem is, making those types of tourists pariahs would end up being self-defeating not only for the tourism industry, but the country as a whole. Because in a whole lot of quite important ways, these types of tourists often are high value, if not people of high net worth. 

Consider the typical experience of a working holiday visa. As the name suggests, the person will spend some time working, and some time on holiday. They’ll almost certainly be spending some or all of that time out in the regions, and the work they do is highly likely to be in the sorts of seasonal employment that doesn’t displace local workers. 

“I think it’s important to remember that youth are high-value travellers,” said Jenni Powell, the chair of the Backpacker Youth and Adventure Tourism Association. Youth isn’t necessarily synonymous with backpackers, but there is a strong correlation between the two. In a typical year, people in that category contributed well over a billion in spending. “They stay longer, they visit more destinations, and they do more activities while they’re here.”

These are the sorts of people who are much more likely to get around New Zealand in a non-self-contained van. They might stay in different places at different times of course too. But for Powell, one of the key points about them is that “as a sector, there’s huge regional dispersal supporting small tourism businesses. Regional dispersal is so important for New Zealand. They connect with our communities and they do respect our environment.” 

A boom in domestic tourism in Queenstown could cushion the damage of the border closure (Photo: Getty Images)

Value isn’t necessarily just an economic picture either. The social and cultural links created by these types of tourists is long-lasting. “They return up to four times in their lifetime, later bringing their families,” said Powell. Perhaps those who come to New Zealand first as smelly backpackers later return as high-net-worth individuals, and if they go somewhere else, they’d likely build an affinity with that place instead. 

Steven Norris, who owns and runs Trips & Tramps in Te Anau, said he personally knows of people who hitchhiked around New Zealand decades ago as young people, who came back recently with plenty of money in the pocket. But he noted that the high cost of living in New Zealand means it is already a naturally expensive place to travel. 

Norris said he often advises people who he comes across travelling on a shoestring budget to come back later when they’re wealthier, travel for less time, and to do more with it. “I would say probably 20% of the people who come to New Zealand come on a pretty tight budget.” He said some of the people travelling in that way do cut corners in a way that annoy locals. 

There was also sympathy from Norris for Nash’s point of view, saying it would be easy to misconstrue the comments as being about seeking “only millionaires and billionaires”. And Norris said a model of tourism that is based on volume above all else was doomed to fail – especially in a year like 2020 in which volume suddenly gets cut off.  

Even so, having the debate about what sort of tourism model New Zealand goes for doesn’t have to involve demonising backpackers. Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins said he was proud that when his city was given the choice about either banning freedom camping, or finding a way to welcome and manage it, the people chose the latter. 

“In some quarters the debate about ‘value versus volume has always been code for prioritising the super-rich. The same arguments about backpackers don’t tend to be made about cruise ship passengers, for example, even though they’re not poles apart in terms of their economic impact,” said Hawkins. 

For Hawkins, the focus for the tourism industry’s future had to be on how to transition it to a zero-carbon world. “Yes, there are certainly environmental impacts of tourism that need to be addressed, from both a climate and biodiversity point of view, but let’s talk about that rather than pretending that chasing fatter wallets will solve it for us.” 

The country currently has a bit of breathing room to figure out what the future of tourism looks like, with the borders remaining closed to all but returning New Zealanders and a few essential workers. But Nash’s intervention this morning suggests the government is very keen on going in a particular direction. People might not always like the backpackers, but it seems certain that we’d miss them if they never came back.

Alex Braae drove a Jucy van around the country over the course of the 2020 election. Jucy had no involvement in the writing of this piece.
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