Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Hitching a ride into harm's way

Welcome to NZ, but remember - we aren't all as friendly as you think.

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

Years ago, to pay my way through university I worked as a waitress at a restaurant in one of the city's largest hotels, on the edge of what was then considered a dodgy part of town.

Tourists from around the globe seemed convinced New Zealand was the safest, cleanest and greenest country on the face of the planet. But these were the days before Asian students had forced Auckland to develop a more interesting nightlife, and for a woman, walking alone around parts of the city at night was not entirely safe.

Not that tourists were ever told that. It was unsurprising that occasionally a female guest would be raped on the street running alongside the hotel - at that time largely deserted and certainly unlit.

We were warned by management never to mention anything about this to customers. Even as a vacuous 18-year-old, that didn't quite sit right but I didn't do anything about the management directive, though I did make damned sure I was never walking down that road alone at the wrong time of night.

Which sounds a little like what is happening at the moment with the young, ostensibly penniless tourists who flock to New Zealand, bringing us the cool cachet a top tourist destination so needs. They are hitchhiking around the countryside in droves. And some are being assaulted and, occasionally, murdered.

Most New Zealanders, I believe, would not be well pleased if their daughter informed them she was planning to hitchhike around the South Island. I would certainly be praying the Rosary for the first time if it were my own daughter (or son), especially having issued all those childhood warnings about never getting into cars with strangers.

Our tourism branding suggests the only risks in New Zealand are to your blood pressure (bungy jumping, for example) or to your wallet (anything in Queenstown). I have not seen much to suggest that, say, walking through a semi-deserted New Zealand town at night is an invitation to be bashed. Or that if someone comes up to your campervan wanting a cigarette in the middle of nowhere, you are well advised not to comply.

Of course, tourism authorities cannot prevent every psychopathic attack on vulnerable tourists. But the silence around real risks speaks volumes - even as a coroner is warning people not to hitchhike alone and apologies are being offered to the latest foreign thumping victims.

Perhaps hitchhiking at least doesn't need to be so risky - but it does need to adapt to a new era. In parts of rural America, for example, there is a system which registers and vets riders and drivers online, and riders get ID codes and boards with a special logo, and are directed to safe places to stick their thumbs out. In Germany a similar system started on university bulletin boards and now works on smartphones.

Certainly, some of the more hardcore hitchhikers will probably remain opposed to any attempt to pin them down in their wanderings. Fair enough, that's their choice. But for those who are hitchhiking because they are short of funds, or just because they want to meet friendly Kiwis, let's be a bit more proactive in ensuring they can continue to do exactly that.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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