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“We’re now open for business”: NZ’s Tourism Minister on welcoming back Aussies

The borders have been open to our transatlantic cousins for a bit over a month now and the opportunity to visit New Zealand couldn’t be greater.

A little over a month ago, tourists were welcomed back into New Zealand after a long two years, which came just in time for ski season.

So we had a chat with Stuart Nash, the NZ minister for tourism, to discuss how the New Zealand travel industry has fared over the past two years, some of NZ’s best-hidden gems and how it felt to see some Aussies finally arrive.

How did it feel to see non-NZ citizen Aussies hop off the plane on the second of May?

It was absolutely fantastic because you got a sense that we’re now open for business. People were coming over here for holiday. It’s something we haven’t seen in two years and it was really good to see. Some of the stories (of incoming arrivals) were quite moving actually, there was one couple who had been standing beside me, they’d been waiting for about three or four minutes and then they saw the person who was coming to pick them up and I don’t know whether it was family or friends but there were tears and hugs and it was obviously the first time they’d caught up in two years. 

How has New Zealand tourism fared over the past two years? 

Domestic tourism, which made up about 60 per cent of the tourism market pre-COVID, has grown by about 17 per cent. But that’s obviously not nearly enough to ensure that we’re actually able to make up for the loss of international tourism, so it’s been tough. 

In certain areas of our country, it’s been really tough. Places like Queenstown, for example, and Milford Sound – are some of the iconic Kiwi places down on the South Island that had a real reliance on international tourism. It’s been very, very hard for a lot of those operators so we’ve helped them as the government. There are some parts of the country designed quite well, it doesn’t have the same reliance as national tourists and obviously with Kiwis unable to travel they actually saw a lot of New Zealanders in a way they haven’t done before. So there are some advantages, but overall we’ve really missed international tourists. 

What has been done by Tourism New Zealand to maintain relationships with Australian travel agents?

Australian travel agents are incredibly important and Tourism New Zealand’s always understood this. So it’s been a lot of work, keeping in touch, making sure that the New Zealand brand is still front of mind. One thing that tourism NZ has done very well over the last two years is built aspiration. They obviously haven’t been able to go out and say “come to New Zealand,” but what they have tried to do, and I think very successfully, is ensured that people know that we’re still here.

What’s new on offer since Aussies last visited New Zealand? 

The government’s challenged its regional tourism organisations to really change the way they offer tourism and deliver tourism to the community. So regenerative tourism is really the key thing now. If you say that sustainable tourism is the old mantra – leave nothing, but let’s take nothing but photographs – whereas regenerative tourism is how it actually adds value to our communities. So they’ve gone out, they’ve engaged in a meaningful way with a whole lot of key stakeholders, be they local government authorities and all parts of the business community. These businesses have said “Hey, look, what do you want to see in terms of tourism? How can they add value to you?” They’ve built this into their destination management plan. So there’s a closer connection between tourism, between communities, and tourism operators that wasn’t there in the past. 

We’ve certainly continued to invest in our tourism infrastructure, but no matter what, when Australians come to New Zealand, they’re still gonna get a very, very warm Kiwi welcome. The only place where we don’t get along is on the sporting field, but the rest of the time, you’re like our brothers and sisters. 

What sort of opportunities is Tourism New Zealand offering Australian travel agents? 

The reason I’m over here is this is the first international buyers get together in over two years. Tourism NZ facilitated this and we are sitting down with all our regional tourism organisations to say, “we’ve built the aspiration and we’re now on the call to action phase. But it’s up to you guys to sit down and sell your region.” 

So a very close relationship and alignment between Tourism New Zealand and our regional tourism operators. There are a lot of the buyers here and we can reconnect with friends and contacts, but also understand what they can take back to their clients.

What specific areas of New Zealand Tourism, whether it be a particular industry or literal region of the country, should Aussies be looking to invest in or explore? 

What we do know is Australians travel to ski. So places like Queenstown where the ski season starts in June and the beginning of July, they’re really gearing up for the Australian ski market. But in the end, Tourism New Zealand doesn’t make it any one specific place, it markets experiences and certain activities, but it won’t say, “You must go here and not there.” That’s up to the regional tourism organisations to really pitch their wares. 

Obviously, Tourism New Zealand will be out there talking about if you come down to – if you’re a skier, and you’re here for seven days, ski for four or five days, but go and visit some vineyards or play a round of golf or do a whole lot of other things you can do in a particular region. We don’t market on behalf of a particular sector of the tourism economy in any way, shape, or form, but we do create aspirations for people that are keen to come over. So you’ll be seeing at this point in time a whole lot of stuff around skiing during ski season which is about to kick off, but there’s a whole lot more to do in this country.

Why should New Zealand be Aussies first destination after the pandemic?

Well, a couple of reasons. There’s so much to see and do in New Zealand and there’s something for everyone, whether you’re into adventure, tourism, skiing, fine wine and food, and friends and family. So what we do know is there are about 1.4 million Australians come to New Zealand every year, that was pre-COVID. About 660,000 of those come as tourists, the others are friends and family or business etc. 

It’s easy to get to NZ. It’s a safe country. We know each other reasonably well and if you’re slightly hesitant about travelling overseas, for whatever reason, then New Zealand’s a great place to start your international trip. Of course, we’d love to see you back time and time again. We like to think we make it easy for Australians to come over relax and spend some Australian dollars in New Zealand, but also have a really good time. 

What’s a hidden gem in New Zealand that you’d recommend Aussie travellers visit? 

We have these great cycle trails, there’s 22 of these and they are magnificent. Gone are the days when mountain biking or trail riding is about getting on a bike for the young and fit, with electric bikes these days it’s opened up a whole new demographic for anyone who wants to get on a bike, do a little bit of work and then have a really, really good dining and overnight experience. So I would recommend anyone of those 22 great cycle trails, there are some beautiful ones down south but they are all around the country. Or I would maybe play a round of golf or Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay. Dinner at Craggy Range, one of our top wineries, get off down to Queenstown and just have a fantastic time. 

Over the coming year what predictions do you have for New Zealand’s tourism industry?

I’m not so naive to think that we won’t have particular challenges but also, there are plenty of opportunities and one of the major opportunities is to slightly reinvent the way that we offer our services and experiences to those who are coming over. We’ve got to work incredibly hard to exceed the expectations of visitors who are coming, in many instances, a long way and spending a lot of money to get here and that includes Australian.

We need to ensure that we have a level of professionalism that is world class. One of the things I said to Tourism New Zealand when I became minister, is that I would like to see us be one of the top three aspirational destinations in the world. Now whether that’s Australians or Americans, Europeans, Asians, we need to go really hard on what we have. In order to do that we’ve really got to understand our global competitive advantage, our unique selling point and our unique selling proposition. 

What we do know is people love the outdoors, they love the tranquillity, they love places like Milford Sound, but they also love adventure tourism and the fact that you can be skiing or playing golf, or tramping or cycling then in the morning and in the evening, you can find a fine dining experience or some fish and chips on the beach. 

But we’ve got workforce issues and a lot of people left the industry. So we’ve got to attract that back and one of the things that I’ve said to the industry is you’ve got to create an aspirational career path for people that want to enter tourism. So that’s a global challenge, actually, but it’s certainly a challenge for New Zealand. I believe that we are ready for tourists to come in and I believe that the experiences that we will now offer will exceed the expectations of those who come over. In the stories that we will tell, again, they will be stories that tourists will take back home and tell their friends and family and colleagues. 

That’s all the questions I had for today’s but is there anything else you wanted to add or anything you felt we didn’t touch on?

I just think it’s so cool to be travelling again. We’ve all used zoom, we all love zoom and I wouldn’t sell my Zoom shares at this point in time because it’s still going to be a valuable tool for communicating. But face to face contact, getting on a plane, having your passport in your hand and then setting off overseas is something we’ve all missed. It’s exciting times and there’s still the element of COVID but I think most people are over COVID and they just want to get on and have a really good time as they come across to New Zealand and that’s exactly what they will get.


Featured Image: Twitter/Stuart Nash

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