• George Hickton is chairman of Hawke's Bay Tourism, a director of a number of tourism and film related companies and was chief executive of Tourism New Zealand (1999-2009) when he introduced the 100% Pure NZ branding campaign.

New Zealand's tourism industry, our single largest export earner, is at a crossroads that could define its medium and long-term future. The "no vacancy" signs, annual visitor growth rates (more than 6 per cent a year in Auckland across the past five years), and record GDP injections are great on the surface.

But growing pains have surfaced, and we are in severe danger of not being able to meet the expectations of our international customers. It feels like we are riding a wave without seeing the reef in front of us.

If our tourism industry goes into a significant decline through poor decision making, complacency, and a lack of attention to sustainable management, it will be as hard to turn around as the giant cruise ships currently visiting our shores.


The funding of Auckland's regional tourism organisation, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), has been a hot topic recently, given Mayor Goff's proposal to fund its work through a targeted rate on commercial accommodation providers.

The emotive debate on the proposed "pillow tax" has included questions about Ateed's very existence. I believe the commentary about the cost of Ateed's work has obscured the crucial need for the argument to go beyond the immediate promotional spending.

We need to ask hard, fundamental questions about the long-term management of Auckland and New Zealand as a visitor destination. To those who would be content to see Ateed disbanded: be careful what you wish for.

In my view, this nation's 30 regional tourism organisations need to be at the heart of our tourism industry, providing crucial representation for the regional tourism interests and operators both nationally and - in some cases - internationally.

Ateed, like all regional tourism organisations, provides the on-ground support the industry needs now and into the future to manage increases and decreases in visitor demand. Without doubt, there will be times when we have to put up the "vacancy" signs again and we need to have systems to cope with that.

We are already starting to see evidence that inappropriately high pricing is reducing demand. The regional consequences on income and jobs will need to be carefully assessed and managed by regional tourism organisations.

The role of these organisations goes well beyond simply attracting visitors. They manage the destination experience through the provision of information, media programmes and industry liaison. Ateed has done a huge amount to convince visitors to see the region as a stand-alone destination, to stay longer, and spend more. Other regional tourism organisations are similarly focused on achieving that in their area.

University of Auckland professor Tim Hazeldine has suggested that Auckland doesn't need more tourism promotion, all it needs is some decent visitor information centres for the current visitor masses. I believe that is as shortsighted as it is over-simplistic.

Though i-sites provide a good service, the role of a regional tourism organisation goes beyond visitor information offices, and that would really become clear if Ateed's visitor attraction programmes halted.

While external forces, such as China's economic boom, have played a part, there is no question a significant chunk of Auckland's current visitor economy growth is a result of the significant investment from the city in marketing and attracting events, conferences, and concerts.

The example of Waikato is sobering. Tourism Waikato folded in 2006, and when the global financial crisis hurt New Zealand's overall tourism numbers, Waikato felt the crunch more because it had stopped promoting itself. Two years later, a replacement regional tourism organisation was formed, but it took time to turn things around.

These are the only organisations which have full responsibility for both domestic and international visitors. Tourism New Zealand has no involvement in the domestic market, and that is a significant issue.

Domestic tourism is regarded by some as the poor cousin of international tourism but it contributed $20.2 billion to regional economies in the year ending March 2016. For many regions, the domestic market is far more important than international visitors.

Tourism simply can't deliver on visitor expectations if you take away regional resources to promote and manage the local impact. It's in the regions that the true visitor expectations are delivered and it's these that generate our most crucial marketing asset: word-of-mouth recommendations.

Allowing the future impact of our largest export earner to become rudderless without regional tourism organisations is a recipe for compounding the problems beginning to emerge right now. Regional organisations are working together to discuss solving infrastructure issues.

While we are experiencing the growth pains of success, the pains of recession are much worse. We need to have the foresight to continue to promote ourselves irrespective of current predictions for hotel shortages for the next decade.

Who will come here in five or 10 years to stay in those rooms if they have moved on and forgotten Auckland and New Zealand? There is no simple solution to funding promotion and management of the visitor economy, but shutting up shop is not the answer.