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 goals.
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 was New Zealand’s top export earner in the year to March 2007, contributing 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 temporarily.
In 2018, 3.9 million international visitors entered New Zealand, and combined domestic and international tourist spending was $39.1 million. There was debate about the effect of such numbers on the quality of the experiences of both tourists and locals at popular destinations – and the ability of infrastructure to cope. In 2019 a tax of $35 was imposed on visitors from countries other than Australia and the Pacific Islands, and targeted ‘bed taxes’ were introduced by some local authorities.
Tourism New Zealand was competing against more than 100 other national tourist offices. 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 both the Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller in 2008, tourists are constantly being drawn to new destinations. New Zealand’s remoteness puts it out of range of low-cost airlines and a trend towards short breaks.
Tougher economic times saw airlines in the UK, US, Japan and South Korea withdraw from the New Zealand route, and fewer 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 employ 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 flights from Vancouver, San Francisco, Beijing and Shanghai gave faster access, though they also lured New Zealanders away from domestic travel.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic effectively halted inbound tourism – and most international air travel – in March 2020. Its long-term effects on the industry were unforeseeable, but likely to be substantial.