Rip off New Zealand?
Guys, just 14 months out from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, you are sleep-walking into acquiring such an unwanted reputation worldwide.
The price of ordinary, everyday articles and living costs horrify me in this country. I've been here, admired the place, loved the people since 1975. I wasn't even put off by my first ever weekend in New Zealand - 17cm of rain in 24 hours and sitting shin-deep in water at Eden Park as the All Blacks aqua-planed past Scotland in that infamous 1975 test.
But what I see today is of far, far greater concern. This place is becoming one of the most expensive I visit, one giant rip-off. And most of you seem unaware of it.
It's not as if I live a hermit's life in some sweet little English village where nothing has changed since the war. I spend much time in France; have been to Rome, Venice, Paris, Dublin, London, New York, San Francisco, Augusta, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Sydney so far this year. You'd have to admit, however grudgingly, that gives me some licence to compare this country with others.
What I find here amazes me. So much so that I don't know how most ordinary folk manage to balance their budgets. True, petrol is much cheaper than in Britain. But in just about every other field, hotels, car hire, restaurant food, wine, clothes or whatever, you're the victims of massive overcharging.
Of course, it's always difficult to compare like with like when speaking of different countries but this is an overall impression from someone from Europe.
I sat down for a simple lunch at a restaurant on Auckland's waterfront last week. The sun was shining, the setting fabulous. A glass of splendid New Zealand sauvignon blanc was a delight - until we saw the price. $28 for two ordinary sized glasses? You don't pay that in Paris or London, unless you go somewhere like the George V in Paris or London's Ivy restaurant.
Now let's be fair. The NZ dollar has appreciated significantly against the pound over the course of the past 12-18 months. When I last visited NZ it was $2.40 to £1. Today, it is around $2.04. But does that explain a growing number of instances where an overseas visitor felt totally ripped off?
And there is growing evidence that it is chiefly the cities of this country who are leading this "grab what you can, make a killing" attitude towards visitors. If that is indeed the case, then it is the country areas, the less populated centres, who will suffer most.
Take car hire. Am I the only visitor to New Zealand who has ever decided that it would be better to drive from Auckland to Wellington and stop for a couple of nights somewhere to see the North Island? It hardly struck me as a revolutionary idea, yet this set me up as a target for just about every major hire car firm in Auckland.
Hertz demanded an outrageous $300 drop-off fee if I wanted to leave the car in Wellington. Yet isn't that what 90 per cent of visitors would do if they were touring, especially going on to the South Island? Companies such as Avis, Europcar and others were demanding only slightly smaller amounts. Some didn't even have a drop facility in Wellington.
Only Ace Rental Cars charged for the hire, no drop off. They are based in Parnell. Go there, save yourself a fortune and snub the big rip-off merchants. Because the fact is, if you hire a car almost anywhere in Europe, there is no drop-off fee. They understand tourists want to drive from A to B and then leave their car. Why rob them for the privilege?
Parking in one city centre carpark in Wellington this week was $9 an hour, $39 for four hours. In Monte Carlo, the first hour's parking at public carparks is, er, free.
Then there are the hotels. This weekend in Wellington at the InterContinental, a king room costs $410. Now it is rugby test weekend and it has club facilities but even so. £205 a room? You might pay that in New York or London but not in most European capitals. And just imagine what on earth such a room will cost on the weekend of October 8/9 next year when Wellington hosts two of the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
The capital city costs a fortune and it's not just an Englishman who thinks so. In the winter of 2008, in the company of several visiting South African writers, we sat down in a harbourside restaurant. When the menus arrived, we were so horrified by the prices we all got up and walked out. It was daylight robbery.
Last week, at Kermadec in Auckland, one main lunch dish was $33. In the evening, entrees were $25, mains around $42 with desserts $18. The wines were equally expensive. In a Takapuna restaurant, also last week, a bottle of Stoneleigh pinot noir cost $48. I could take you to a dozen restaurants in Nice where you'd drink a perfectly good French wine for nothing near that amount.
Even in glitzy Monte Carlo, at one elegant beachside restaurant, a glass of rose wine costs less than $6. And that is in one of the best locations on the Cote d'Azur. The fact is, you just don't have to spend such vast amounts as New Zealand hostelries are charging, even in outstanding restaurants across Europe.
The cost of New Zealand wine bewilders me in restaurants. In supermarkets you can buy a good bottle of your outstanding sauvignon blanc for as little as $12.99. But dare to order it in a restaurant and it soars to anything between $40 and $60. That's a 400 per cent mark up, or more.
Then there are clothes. One New Zealand store last week had a merino wool wrap-over cardigan for $498. In Rodd & Gunn in Queen St, wool sweaters were offered at $235. True, there was a discount which made them $180, around £90. But you'd barely pay that in Paris. No wonder the place was empty.
In another store, a pair of New Zealand-made socks cost $35. Far cheaper in Europe and even less expensive in America. In New York in April, I bought four top-quality cotton shirts for US$99 ($130). In Wellington this week, one specialist shirt shop was offering three shirts for $300.
Yet it isn't like this everywhere in New Zealand. I hired a room at the Boulevard Waters Motor Lodge overlooking Lake Taupo this week and stayed two nights. The setting, right on the waterfront, was spectacular, matched only by the views. $158 a night did not strike me as robbery for such a comfortable room and fantastic setting, with your own private terrace overlooking the lake.
In Taupo for lunch, the Fusion cafe served an enormous bowl of delicious seafood chowder with two slices of focaccia. It was a meal in itself and superb quality. The cost? $10.50. Great value, and it shone like a beacon on a dark night in terms of the many examples of overcharging I've encountered on this trip.
Does any of this matter? After all, it's only tourists who might get fleeced and they won't be back every year. And the Rugby World Cup which is being held here next year might be the last time it is hosted exclusively by New Zealand. So hey guys, grab what you can in hiked up profits, make a fortune and smile all the way to the bank. Right? No, wrong, dead wrong.
New Zealanders will be dumb if they even think of such a philosophy. The World Cup ought to be an event that showcases the whole country to visitors from every corner of the globe. They should go home extolling the virtues of this land. Think long term, six or even 16 years of profits on the back of that scenario, not a money grab operation spanning six weeks which will persuade many visitors never to return.
Already, the word is getting out in an international sense that New Zealand is getting expensive. The fact is, you just can't afford to allow that image to take root. You're too far away from the rest of the world to afford such a scenario. In Paris, Rome, London or New York they can get away with that purely due to population numbers in those parts of the world. It is very different here. International travellers are not fools; fewer will come if New Zealand is known as too expensive.
Learn from the example of South Africa which has just hosted the soccer World Cup. Some locals believed they'd make such a killing.
They spent thousands transforming facilities in their homes so they could charge visitors astronomical rental fees. Airlines elevated the cost of domestic flights to another stratosphere; hotel prices were eye-watering.
The result? Many private South Africans didn't get any visitors at all. Some would-be landlords are now crying they are close to financial ruin.
In case you hadn't noticed it down here, there is a major recession ravaging the Western world, especially Britain, Europe and the US. Budgets have been slashed, overseas trips heavily curtailed. The moment the word gets out internationally that New Zealand has become one big rip-off, your tourism industry is in serious trouble.
The rush to profit might seem a Valhalla but long term it could be the ruination of not just your business but a great many others.
* Peter Bills is an international writer for Independent News & Media.