What do Phil Goff and the Mongrel Mob have in common?

As hundreds of travel industry figures from all around the world gathered in Auckland for last week's Trenz conference, one of the many topics up for discussion was the Auckland mayor's enthusiasm for a hotel bed tax on visitors to the city.

Meanwhile, up north at Ahipara on Ninety Mile Beach, three German tourists were approached by two local Mongrel Mob members who told them that they were on Maori land, and had to pay koha. They also told the tourists they'd be taking a few of their cigarettes. A tobacco tax, if you will. Perhaps their plan for putting heavy taxes on visitors was inspired by the Super City mayor.

Goff's bed tax is about as blunt an instrument as the Mob's shakedown. "Look there's a foreigner! Let's get a couple of bucks off them." The airport tax introduced by John Key a year ago is equally clumsy.

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It's a travesty that these tariffs are the best we can come up with for making money out of tourism. Yes, other countries put dull levies on visitor arrivals, but that's no reason to follow suit. We New Zealanders pride ourselves on being innovators, so let's find innovative ways to get more money out of the tourism sector. Both Goff and Key were ministers in governments that did everything they could to remove tariffs from the dairy trade. Today, the best and brightest marketing wallahs of Goff's inner circle are putting forward a plan no more sophisticated than one devised by two Mongrel Mob members standing on a Northland beach.

Super City mayor Phil Goff. Photo / Greg Bowker
Super City mayor Phil Goff. Photo / Greg Bowker

I'm not against making money out of tourists — quite the opposite, in fact. I think it's terrific that our country can be boosted by an industry that encourages us to care for our environment, celebrate the things that make our culture unique and spreads revenue quickly and efficiently to the regions.

But how about instead of putting a dumb tax on the visitors, we upsell them? Take their money at the gate for sure, but give them something special in return.

How about every tourist arriving in New Zealand gets membership of a club — it's a digital thing that offers them discounts around the country. And yes, it costs money; and yes, it's compulsory.

The discounts and incentives in the digital product (which could take the form of an easy-to-use app on your phone) could be stronger in regions that we're wanting people to visit.

So you get nothing for going to Queenstown (it's already full), but pull up in Hokitika and there's a fresh flat white waiting for you and a 20 per cent discount on a motel for the night. Dargaville? Two coffees and a 30 per cent discount. Think of it as a loyalty card for the whole country.

When visitors return to New Zealand, they reactivate the app and get even better incentives. My local gym recently had an incentive scheme that would have seen me get a free pair of sneakers if a friend of mine joined. Let's do the same thing with New Zealand tourism: Bring a fellow traveller with you who hasn't been here before and there's 20 per cent off your airfare.

We would make money up front — charging people for the package when they arrive. But the real value would be in data-mining. The vast majority of tourists arrive here with very flash electronic gadgets — by getting them hooked into a digital membership like this we can track and analyse how and where they spend their money around the country.

Tourism New Zealand could make use of the data in its marketing and infrastructure-funding decisions could be based on hard numbers, not hopeful hunches.

Best of all, the Government could then sell targeted data to Kiwi tourism operators throughout the country and the overseas retailers that send people here.

Don't just slap a lazy tariff on people. Give them something in return. And for crying out loud, don't steal their cigarettes.