As the conservation movement gained influence in the 2000s, the marketing slogan of ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ risked seeming untenable. The tourist industry set its own environmental standards such as Green Globe 21 – an international system of certification for businesses that reduce their damage to the environment. It also worked to meet the government’s sustainability measures.
The tyranny of distance
Despite jet travel, New Zealand’s far-flung location remains a challenge. As a British travel editor commented, ‘New Zealand’s beautiful. It’s like Scotland … But Scotland doesn’t involve a 26 hour flight and 13 time zones.’1
The concept of carbon footprints and the rising cost of fuel also intensified the idea that New Zealand was a distant place. To retain its profitability, Air New Zealand adjusted aircraft design and flying techniques and ordered fuel-efficient new-generation Boeing aircraft.
Tourism remained New Zealand’s top export earner in the year to March 2007 and contributed 9.2% of gross domestic product. In 2008, for the first time, the combined spending of domestic and international tourists reached $20 billion a year. However tourism remained a volatile industry, often at the mercy of forces outside its control. The chill of world recession and high fuel prices saw tourism decline. International visitor numbers declined 3.9% to 2.4 million visitors in the year ended March 2009, but recovered to 2.5 million visitors for the year to December 2009.
Tourism New Zealand was competing against over 100 national tourist offices around the world. New Zealand’s annual investment of $69 million was dwarfed by the publicity spending of other countries. Although New Zealand was ranked as tourists’ top long-haul destination in the Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller in 2008, trends change and tourists are drawn to new destinations. New Zealand’s distance puts it out of range of low-cost airlines and changing travel patterns that encourage short breaks.
Tougher economic times have seen airlines in the UK, US, Japan and South Korea withdraw from the New Zealand route, and a diminishing number of visitors from these countries. Leading companies like Tourism Holdings and Ngai Tahu Tourism have taken over the kind of large-scale enterprises once owned by the government, but 75% of tourist companies are small, employing five or fewer workers.
In the early 2000s New Zealand tourism still benefited from unspoilt scenery and imaginative developers. Māori entrepreneurs had regained a dominant role in the industry. Air New Zealand’s new direct routes from San Francisco, Shanghai, Vancouver and Beijing gave faster access across the Pacific, though they also lured New Zealanders away from domestic travel.