It was refreshing to read Martin Snedden's piece in Wednesday's Herald on the plans to modify visa restrictions for visitors from China.
Good on you Martin. At last, someone in the tourism "establishment" who is prepared to publicly admit the truth about what has happened in this valuable market sector since the implementation of the Approved Destination Status scheme for Chinese tour groups, the only one of its kind for any country that are our major tourist visitor markets.
Snedden's honest words "shopping consortiums have effectively gained control over the arrangements and payments for the majority of these tours, restricting yields and undermining the quality of the visitor experience" could not be closer to the reality of what the scheme has produced for the Chinese visitor sector. Whilst it has resulted in "tidying up" some of the operators in this sector, the overall result is that it has delivered a worse New Zealand experience for these visitors than they otherwise might be receiving if there was a level playing field.
Rigid and inflexible edicts by the office charged with administering the scheme here in New Zealand, particularly in the area of transport, has seen these groups at the mercy of some operators whose only purpose is to fleece their customers of as much of their money as possible, as cheaply as possible and who have little interest in providing a quality visitor experience for their customers.
Where once these groups would have been carried in large, purpose-built, luxury tour coaches in comfort and safety, driven by experienced, professional, uniformed drivers, many Chinese groups are now crammed like sardines into smaller shuttle-bus type vehicles, loaded down with luggage and shopping packages to the point of being dangerous, directly due to the vehicle age restrictions placed on transport operators as part of the scheme's conditions of service.
Large, comfortable, refurbished, but older coaches can no longer be used to transport approved destination scheme groups, meaning that, contrary to the stated intent, the only way shopping-trip operators can satisfy the requirements for the price they are prepared to pay is to use newer, but cheaper, much smaller vehicles that might comply with the age restrictions, but are, at best, basic transport.
Long-established New Zealand transport operators have been all but squeezed out of this market as they are unable to compete profitably with the low prices demanded by the select few inbound-operators who have managed to comply with the rules.
The costs of operating large, quality tour coaches of any age, let alone newer coaches costing upward of $400,000 or more to put on the road, means that it is almost impossible to meet the criteria required at a price the shopping-trip companies will pay.
It is high time the Government faced up to the fact that the whole approved destination idea is flawed. Any attempt to bring these facts to the attention of those that administer it is met with a myopic denial of the obvious. Will it take a horrendous accident to wake up those in charge to the precarious situation that now exists because of this scheme ?
The damage it must be doing to our tourism industry's image in China is immeasurable and it needs to be re-assessed urgently. Here's hoping the China Market Review team can do the job successfully.
We have nothing to fear from visitors from China, certainly no more than visitors from any other country, and any efforts to make it easier for them to feel safe, welcome and appreciated here with a unique, quality visitor experience should be applauded and encouraged so all New Zealanders can share in the benefits a healthy tourism industry provides to our country.
Robert Robinson is a tour operator based in Auckland www.akiwitour.com