With New Zealand tourism in a lull – and backpackers in the firing line – Queenstown-based start-up Kiwi Welcome is creating a new model of sustainable travel where visitors add value to the land.
For the past few years – up until Covid-19 began hoarding the headlines – one of New Zealand’s most pressing public issues was poo. It seemed like it was everywhere: on our beaches, in our public reserves, on our footpaths, and, perhaps most shockingly, on our sacred campgrounds.
Discarded faeces in our beautiful environment came to symbolise the limits of the booming tourism industry – a smelly consequence of the kind of high-intensity, low-value model that corralled too many frugal backpackers into too few places, where the main things they contributed was litter and Lord of the Rings fandom.
In remote regions where scarce ratepayers’ funds could seldom afford the necessary toilets and bins, freedom campers were starting to be viewed with the same contempt as stoats. The sight of a convoy of Toyota Estimas made entire South Island communities grimace and shudder, aware of the impending clean up at the local reserve once they moved on.
Then, as if overnight, Covid-19 came along and it all disappeared.
The pandemic has been a mixed blessing for New Zealand tourism. It’s provided some much-needed respite from the hordes of backpackers and freedom campers, but it’s also forced whole businesses into liquidation, hundreds of redundancies and prompted the government to launch a $400m support package to prop up the crippled industry.
But for those lucky enough to be able to tough it out, it’s provided breathing room – some valuable quiet time for operators to reflect and ask earnestly what they want New Zealand tourism to be when the borders reopen; the same low-value, high-turnover hustle? Or something more sustainable and holistic? The issue was given more oxygen recently when minster of tourism Stuart Nash announced that low-budget backpackers were not in his plans for the recovering industry.
However, it was over seven months ago during New Zealand’s lockdown, that Sam Brough, founder of sustainable tourism start-up Kiwi Welcome, first started pondering the question: “What if we could encourage or incentivise visitors to not just see New Zealand, but to protect it or preserve it and contribute to it?”
Having seen the demand and prices for tourism services collapse, Brough spotted an opportunity within the vanished margin. Because customers were already paying less than they would have before Covid-19, the idea was to create a paid subscription to a website that directed visitors to registered tourism operators in Central Otago. Members would pay $79 to sign up and, in return, receive special discounts from registered merchants.
But the main point of difference for Kiwi Welcome was that the entire value of the $79 membership fee would stay in the community in the form of a donation to a local charity or trust.
Brough says the value to customers, local commerce and the community means Kiwi Welcome has been enthusiastically received by tourism operators. Currently there are more than 50 merchants registered since it launched in October.
“The more operators on the platform, the more savings customers can get with their $79,” he says. “But we want to also be really pushing our message about being purpose-driven and sustainability-led because that’s what separates us from the market; knowing full well that 100% of all that membership fee actually goes back into the land.”
Brough says as a social enterprise, Kiwi Welcome is only covering its operating costs. Periodically it will collect the accumulated revenue from membership fees, and then ask a registered business at random which local cause it would like to see the money donated to.
“We don’t want responsibility for making the choice of which social or environmental cause will receive the money because we are not close enough to the real kinds of issues,” Brough says.
“The businesses that are registered with us, they live and work with the community, and they know what is it that really needs protecting and what would actually benefit this place for both people that live here, and people who are visiting.”
Kiwi Welcome has a simple criteria for the donation: it should be registered charity or charitable trust, and it should benefit the local region. While the type of cause isn’t stipulated, Brough says in Otago the vast majority of charities are environmental ones – such as the Kea Conservation Trust – which are already trying to offset the negative impact of too many visitors.
So what are the long term plans for the project?
“We would love to have 100 businesses before Christmas,” Brough says. “I guess it’s a bit of a snowball effect because we’re already starting to get inquiries come to us, which is great. Initially, it was a very much pound the pavement and knock on doors.
“And from a membership point of view, we want to hit 10,000 members in our first year. So by this time next year, if we hit 10,000, then over the course of that year we would have given back over $500,000 to a social or environmental cause, which is big money.”
While Kiwi Welcome is only operating in Central Otago for the moment, Brough says he’s had inquiries from Hawke’s Bay, Wellington, Te Anau and even from Canberra in Australia.
“There’s a real desire for a community-led tourism platform like Kiwi Welcome to be helicoptered into those places and we have every intention to do that.”
“But as a start-up, we’ve said: ‘How about we prove the model in a real tourism mecca like Queenstown and then, if we can prove that model works, take it as far and wide as we can’.”
At this stage, Kiwi Welcome is only a website, but Brough says it’s easy for visitors to navigate around and find the businesses they’re looking for. Members can purchase vouchers at discount rates, and then redeem them with registered businesses. Brough says that a couple visiting for a long weekend could book a hotel, hire a rental car and do three activities through Kiwi Welcome and save about $400.
But what do the registered merchants think of it? Kate Mitchell, digital and sustainability coordinator at Edgewater Resort in Wanaka, says its best feature is that the website includes operators that invest a lot in the environment and the community.
“It’s not just anybody can be there,” she says. “They came to us and said: ‘We really like what you’re doing with your sustainability efforts and we feel like that you guys have a focus on domestic tourism that’s responsible for sustainability’.”
“So they may have got us on the hook with the flattery but the overall feel of the programme makes it a no brainer.”
While Kiwi Welcome ultimately aims to improve the commerce of tourism operators, ultimately its main purpose is to create a partnership between like-minded businesses and visitors with a sustainable goal in mind. Brough says the Kiwi Welcome model will hopefully eliminate the many commission-taking intermediaries from the market and also remove the tension and stress that’s developed through the old high-turnover, low value dynamic.
“The people who live here have to bear the brunt of protecting and looking after the place. So as a traveller with Kiwi Welcome, you’re doing your bit and therefore you’ll perhaps be received more warmly.”
Of course, there’s a lot more needed to be done to fix the industry before the borders inevitably reopen and the tourists return. But Brough says offering something that helps create a sustainable option for both visitors and businesses is a start.
“You could say there’s a little bit of reflection happening, and people are asking themselves ‘why did I get into business in this industry in the first place?’ Most of them will say it wasn’t just to make money.”
“We’re taking the passion and desire of businesses and visitors to create change, and saying ‘you can be a part of that with us’. That’s where we’re getting the most enthusiastic responses of people that have felt that way but haven’t been able to act on it.”
“I think 2020 could be the year of silver lining to tourism.”