New Zealand tourism minister makes pitch to the rich as he spurns ‘$10-a-day’ travellers

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New Zealand’s tourism minister has again expressed his aversion to budget travellers, saying the country will not seek to attract those who “travel around our country on $10 a day eating two-minute noodles”.

Stuart Nash said the country would unashamedly continue to focus on “high quality” big spenders, despite one expert saying such visitors typically had a much higher environmental footprint and didn’t necessarily contribute more to the economy.

At an announcement on Wednesday about plans to bolster the tourism workforce as the country’s borders reopened, Nash said the country would continue to focus on “big spender” visitors. “​​In terms of targeting our marketing spin, it is unashamedly going to be at … high-quality tourists,” he said.

“We are going to welcome backpackers … [but] we are not going to target the people who put on Facebook how they can travel around our country on $10 a day eating two-minute noodles.”

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While the minister has said backpackers and lower-budget visitors were still welcome in New Zealand, his focus on rich tourists has been controversial in the past.

In 2020, Nash said the country would “unashamedly” target the super wealthy, and seek to attract the kind of tourist who “flies business class or premium economy, hires a helicopter, does a tour round Franz Josef and then eats at a high-end restaurant”. The proposals attracted some heat, with one commentator calling them “snobby, elitist and out of touch.”

The assumption that “high net worth individuals” contributed more to New Zealand than budget travellers wasn’t necessarily backed up by the research, said Prof James Higham, a professor of tourism at Otago University. “I’ve seen no evidence for that,” he said.

“The trend over recent decades globally has been for tourists to travel further, travel faster, produce more CO2, stay shorter and spend less at the destination,” said.

The result, he said, was often “very wealthy people destroying the planet in the process of not contributing to destinations as we might have expected or hoped”.

“Big spenders are often the most environmentally damaging, and because they tend to have … regular repeat high carbon travel with low length of stay … they’re not particularly beneficial, particularly to far flung destinations made in New Zealand.”

Tourists who tend to be on a lower income – such as international students and backpackers – often stayed for longer in the country, and length of stay was directly correlated with cumulative in-country spending, he said.

Cruise ship visitors, for example, were typically affluent, but made up only 3% of visitor spend, despite being 9% of visitors. “The economic contribution of cruise passengers is dismal compared to students who come here to study,” he said.

Budget travellers were also often repeat visitors – those who came as backpackers might return as workers, or as tourists later in life, Higham said.

Nash’s comments come as New Zealand is attempting to rebuild its tourism workforce and industry after a year spent closed off from the world by pandemic protections.

Before Covid-19, international tourism made up a huge chunk of the country’s economy – its direct and indirect contribution is 9.3% of GDP – but increasing visitor numbers had also prompted growing concerns about environmental degradation, overcrowding and pressure on infrastructure.