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The BulletinJanuary 23, 2024

Tourism operators celebrate international visitor bounce-back

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Visitor numbers are up, but the industry says it needs more government funding to compete on the world stage for tourists’ dollars, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Tourist operators celebrate a busy summer

It’s New Zealand’s second summer with the borders open, and a very good one so far for the tourism sector. After a cautious return for international visitors over the 2022-23 season, numbers are bouncing back as the country enjoys the tail-end of the global post-Covid “revenge travel” boom. Coromandel and Kaikōura are among the areas where tourism operators are reporting huge visitor surges. Stats NZ last week released the latest visitor arrival numbers, for November 2023, and the trend line is looking strong. Visitor arrivals were up by 70,700 from the same month in 2022, with the biggest increases coming from Australia and the US. Numbers still haven’t fully bounced back, however. Visitor arrivals in November were only 82% of what they were in November 2019 – the last year pre-pandemic – and the Tourism Export Council forecasts they won’t return to 2019 levels until the second half of next year.

A global tourism resurgence

Those numbers show that New Zealand’s tourism recovery is running a little behind the global norm. According to the UN World Tourism Barometer, international tourism ended 2023 at 88% of pre-pandemic levels, with an estimated 1.3 billion international arrivals worldwide. “Europe, the world’s most visited region, reached 94% of 2019 levels, supported by intra-regional demand and travel from the United States,” the UN reports. The Middle East was the only region where visitor numbers exceeded pre-Covid levels, up 22% since 2019. While New Zealand is playing catch-up, there are lots of positives for the tourism sector here. As a niche destination “at the more premium end” of the market, the country could be fairly well protected from any global downturn in 2024, says Tourism NZ head René de Monchy.

More funding needed to help NZ compete, says industry

Beyond the headline figures, the health of the industry is mixed. Many businesses didn’t survive the double whammy of pandemic closedowns and high interest rates, while Tourism NZ – the Crown agency tasked with selling NZ to the world – had its budget cut by the previous government. National’s pre-election pledges to boost tourism included money for a new Great Walk in the South Island and to electrify the New Zealand Cycle Trail, but no promise to reinvest in export marketing. NZ is competing in a crowded international marketplace and needs investment to give it a “louder voice”, says the Trade Export Council’s Scott Mehrtens. Another issue is visa processing times. Mehrtens says inbound operators and hotel chains are reporting last-minute cancellations of group bookings due to visas not being approved in time by Immigration NZ.

Are tourist drivers a danger on our roads?

The return of tourism also means a rise in reports of dangerous driving by international visitors. The West Coast has experienced a spate of accidents involving tourists over recent weeks, RNZ reports, including the January 14 crash that killed Greymouth librarian Sue Johnson and seriously injured her husband. Two days earlier an American tourist hit an oncoming car after driving for at least 10 minutes on the wrong side of the road despite a following vehicle beeping its horn and flashing headlights to grab his attention. While such cases understandably draw attention, a senior road policing officer says the perception that tourists are a major danger on our roads is wrong. “New Zealand drivers crash at a much higher rate than visitors,” Inspector Peter McKennie told The Spinoff in 2017. “So sometimes it is a case of having to look in the mirror and consider our own driving before we start getting too critical of those from overseas.”

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