Passion, knowledge, that's what we want in our tourism service, writes Pamela Wade.

The stories you've been reading in this Travel magazine, and the photographs you've looked at, have one main purpose: to inspire you to go to those places and see for yourself. Yes, they should also entertain and inform you but, particularly in the case of stories resulting from familiarisation trips provided by the operator, the expectation is that readers will fork over their hard-earned in order to replicate that experience.

The thing is, once you're on the ground at that destination, the location is only half the story, if that. Snow-capped mountains, luminous lakes, turquoise seas and white-sand beaches will always be beautiful, but your enjoyment of them, and your memories, will be coloured by the people you encounter there.

The travel agent who puts your itinerary together, the staff at the airport, ferry terminal or bus station, those who look after you on your journey, the concierge, chamber maid, motor camp manager, tour guide and the guys who throw you off a bridge with a bungy tied to your ankles have the power to make or break your holiday (in the case of the bungy operator, hopefully not literally).

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If they do their jobs well, with enthusiasm and humour, efficiency and understanding, your money will have been well spent. If, however, they mix up your bookings, greet you with indifference, omit to warn you that museums are closed on Mondays, scoop up your pyjama bottoms with the dirty towels, or are surly, cold or just plain rude, you'll rue every dollar that's now gone forever. And you'll tell everyone about it when you get back home.

So the people who work in tourism are vital: not just to your personal experience, but to the industry, which is now New Zealand's top export earner. To provide quality, and ensure a high reputation as well as repeat visits, we need to attract the right people to fill all those different jobs. The trouble is, right now it's not seen as a real career.

Having spent some time as a relieving teacher in travel and tourism classes at secondary school, if I'm brutally honest, I have to say that - with some heartening exceptions - the average IQ of the students is not scintillating. It's seen as an easy option, a non-academic subject, entirely internally assessed and with the added attraction of days out of school visiting tourist attractions. These are followed up by putting together the sort of project I remember from my intermediate days: superficial, uninspiring and, today, owing a great deal to Google.

What I haven't seen in these students is any real ambition, or realisation that the travel industry could be a rewarding career. Their teachers do their best but are aware their subject is not highly regarded by school administrators, or by parents; and this is reflected in the funding for their resources. This has to change. The increasing numbers of tourists to our shores, and their growing affluence, require a high level of performance by all those they come into contact with - people with enthusiasm, knowledge, initiative and personality.

Further, and ideally, those people should be residents of New Zealand, with all the local colour and insight that they can provide. With respect to our time-honoured OE tradition, now embraced by many nationalities, of taking temporary jobs in the hospitality industry while travelling, for the tourist it does dilute the experience if most of their contact in New Zealand is with itinerant Argentinian, American and English workers. That is especially the case when it comes to tour guides. These are the people who can make or break the experience, and figure prominently in the travel stories tourists share once they're back home.

Travel and tourism workers should be there because they want to be, because they see tourism as a real career, enjoy the work, love this country and get satisfaction from sharing it with others. This is the ideal. Achieving it should start in our schools, with this subject option given proper recognition, importance, funding and support.