Before the borders closed last year, a large part of the New Zealand tourism sector was already engaged in moving to a sustainable, and even regenerative, model of tourism.
More than 1500 businesses had signed up to, and were actively engaged with, the Tourism Sustainability Commitment developed by Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA), which aims to commit every New Zealand tourism business to sustainability by 2025.
There are four pillars to this commitment: world-leading experiences that exceed visitor expectations, communities that benefit from and are supported by tourism, tourism activities that protect and enhance our natural environment, and tourism businesses that are "economically sustainable, resilient and innovative".
The Government appears to be overlooking the fourth, crucial pillar. Their message is that the tourism sector is failing badly in the sustainability stakes and ignoring the beating war drums that signal impending doom for the 100% Pure brand. Their stance: change now, change big, or get out of the way.
It is cynical for the Government to suggest that a Damascene conversion is required in tourism sector sustainability practices, and it overlooks the huge number of Kiwi businesses involved in tourism which have always been driven by doing the right thing. We understand that to do otherwise would be akin to killing the kererū that lays the golden eggs.
Tourism operators are doing remarkable work to introduce more sustainability practices to their businesses. But the Government would have you believe that pre-Covid, these tourism operators were content to drown in a tsunami of budget international visitors, who traipsed through our pristine landscapes leaving behind a trail of discarded toilet paper. Kaitiakitanga was apparently nowhere to be seen.
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash is eager to capitalise on the pause provided by pandemic border closures: to hit the reset button and redefine how Aotearoa's tourism businesses should operate.
But his vision of fewer, higher-paying international visitors uses a too-narrow definition of what constitutes a "high-value" visitor. Compare the so-called value of a gaggle of wealthy golfers who helicopter around the country, ticking off their bucket list of the most exclusive courses (the upkeep of which requires some pretty unsustainable practices) with a pair of backpackers who stay for weeks, engage with a variety of small tourism operators and other businesses, and leave with a lasting sense of what 100% Pure NZ really represents.
Nash's vision for the future of tourism in Aotearoa is not without merit. But his timing, and his timeframe, feels like a kick in the guts for a sector whose confidence is at its lowest ebb.
Our tourism sector, which is comprised of mostly SME businesses, including 29,000 working proprietors, is among the hardest hit by the pandemic. With catastrophically decreased revenue, many are only just keeping their heads above water. TIA research suggests we've lost four in 10 pre-Covid tourism jobs and an alarming report, released last week, suggests three-quarters of tourism business owners that responded are concerned about their wellbeing and mental health.
There is neither money nor capacity to undertake wholesale change tomorrow – their priorities are much more immediate and linked to survival.
Practical help is needed to start these businesses on their journey to a more sustainable model.
Management consultants who spout grand theory are not the solution; friendly, practical advice, from people who appreciate that social and environmental sustainability flows from economic sustainability, is.
Businesses need help mapping the small, initial steps, with the intention of achieving much bigger strides when sustained recovery starts to appear. Such help should be industry-led, but tourism trade associations, like TIA, desperately require an injection of government funding.
The Government wants the tourism sector to carry its own overhaul costs, picking up the bill for the resources it uses. Interestingly, pre-Covid the sector was generating $3.9 billion in GST for the Government; total GST in 2017 was $17.8 billion, so tourism's contribution was around 22 per cent.
To suggest the sector isn't already pulling its weight is disingenuous.
Some would argue the Government has already provided millions of dollars in support to the tourism sector. But only 126 businesses received the Government's now discredited STAPP funding.
Tourism Communities: Support, Recovery and Re-set Plan, the latest Government announcement, is focused on just five South Island regions. Elsewhere, jobs and businesses continue to quietly disappear.
Companies such as EcoZip Adventures, which is already advanced on the sustainability journey, are ready and willing to act as advocates, as are organisations like TIA. The Government must recognise it has a willing sustainability partner in the tourism sector, but wholesale change requires time and money which are in short supply for businesses who have been cut off from their principal markets for nearly 18 months.
The first step in the road to a sustainable, and indeed a regenerative tourism model, is economic sustainability. We need tourism to be back in the black before it can really go green.
• Gavin Oliver is co-founder of EcoZip Adventures, chair of the Auckland Tourism Regional Forum and deputy chair of Waiheke Island Tourism Incorporated.