Peter Bills: Don't shoot the messenger, guys

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How much does a long black / flat white or bottle of Heineken / Stella Artois cost at your local cafe/bar? Tell us where you are and what you are paying.
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With Auckland's small population, Peter Bills says waterfront restaurants can't get away with fleecing customers. Photo / Marty Melville
With Auckland's small population, Peter Bills says waterfront restaurants can't get away with fleecing customers. Photo / Marty Melville

So, now look what you've done. This missive comes to you from across the Tasman Sea in Sydney, the nearest point the author of last week's so-called "Rip-Off New Zealand" article could find to discover sanctity from the brickbats hurled in his direction.

There was I thinking you Kiwis were a friendly, welcoming bunch for overseas visitors and I get banished to Oz for daring to question New Zealand's sky-high prices.

I feel like some sheep stealer from 18th-century England suffering transportation to Botany Bay. Because, let's face it, being sent to Oz is about as dubious a privilege now as it was in 1788.

Seriously, it seems that Friday's in-depth feature touched a raw nerve among New Zealanders. The amount of interest in the Herald article has been astronomical - more than 200 emails sent to the website, in excess of 350 comments on Twitter.

Columns and editorials have been written, cartoons drawn, radio and TV interviews arranged. There have been the derisory and the derogatory. "Bog off back to the UK" someone advised me. Charming!

And the issue even reached Government level, with your Tourism Minister discussing what he called "these allegations". They were a bit more than that, actually, mate - hard facts, I'm afraid.

Yet what has surprised me most has been the level of support I have received from ordinary New Zealanders.

From the sweet little old lady in the kiosk at Wellington's Westpac stadium before Saturday night's test match, to the exiled New Zealanders living abroad who complained volubly about the excessive prices and costs of life that drove them away from their country, the issue seems to have brought a huge outpouring of views and emotions from people.

Some thanked me fulsomely for saying "what should have been said long ago". Others qualified their support, rightly pointing out that it isn't just New Zealand that is guilty of rip-offs.

How true. Someone suggested I ought to look at the UK for an example of overcharging. Well, I have news for them: I have been for some years and I've expressed my views very forcefully on the subject.

Far, far too much of the UK is a giant rip- off. Restaurants in London are so often hugely expensive and rank bad value for money.

You spend around $200 or more for two and come out thinking, "what was all that about"?

But that is exactly the point. You can do the same thing in New Zealand and that fact alone ought to ring alarm bells for your country. Because the point is, I don't believe you can get away with robbing people here.

It's different in European cities like London or Paris; the numbers of people there are so huge that crook restaurants or hotels can keep fleecing people because there are just so many potential customers out there. It is different, very different here.

One reader emailed and said, "It isn't just here; try buying a cup of coffee in St Mark's Square, Venice."

And you know what? I have, and he's 100 per cent correct. It's like being mugged, the prices are crazy. Don't even think about it, if you find yourself there.

But, and with all due respect, neither the Auckland waterfront nor a cafe alongside the river at Christchurch are St Mark's Square, Venice. Your service providers have to tailor their prices accordingly and right now, I don't believe they are.

There was a predictable flap from senior officials of restaurants I had criticised, such as Kermadec in Auckland, who complained that I'd highlighted one of the most expensive items on their menu. Trouble is, their argument was flawed - the $33 dish I used as an example was in big letters on a board outside their restaurant. They were the ones promoting the dish, not me! Someone emailed: "You know those places will be expensive, why do you eat there?"

I didn't and anyway, with great respect, you're missing the point. How do tourists, visitors and strangers to this country know where to go to find good value, inexpensive restaurants?

How are they likely to find a terrific little local bistro in Ponsonby or Lower Hutt, outstanding as it may very well be?

They will naturally gravitate towards centres like the waterfront at Auckland.

All I am saying is, if their fate is to be wildly over-charged then it is a poor advertisement for your country.

A considerable number of people have either come up to me or called in the past few days to say thanks for highlighting this issue. I can tell you this in all honesty - there was no hidden agenda here. All I sought to do was express a genuinely held belief that what I was seeing was not good at all for New Zealand or its tourist business.

For, as you know, tourism is a crucial, fundamental element of your country's GDP. Abuse it at your peril, I'd suggest.

And so on this beautiful, sunny morning as the sun glints beguilingly on Mt Cook, as the wind moves gently across the lake at Taupo and as some smooth-talking Auckland restaurateur pours two glasses of sauvignon blanc that will cost the poor, innocent consumer a ruinous $28, there is good news and bad news for you New Zealanders regarding a writer who dared to challenge the status quo.

The good news is, I'll be in Australia for the next few weeks and then back in the Northern Hemisphere for a while.

The bad news is, I'll be back in your fabulous country some time next year. And I'll keep coming back because it remains one of the best places to be, filled with wonderful people, many of whom have a great sense of humour and a sense of balance in their lives.

I just hope, however, that when I'm next here, marvelling at the sights of the countryside in both islands, going for a training run around Wellington Harbour or just enjoying a yarn with someone about the All Blacks, some of those more outlandish prices have been trimmed back a bit.

If that proves to be the outcome of this little winter storm of 2010, then it will all have been worthwhile.

* Peter Bills is an international writer for Independent News and Media.

- NZ Herald

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