Can we turn an international travel shutdown into a new brave new start, the Lonely Planet founder has asked of New Zealand
Moving on from writing guidebooks, Tony Wheeler has since begun tackling the hard problems of global travel: carbon debt, over-tourism and sustainable development. And he thinks the world has a lot to learn from Aotearoa.
"Because New Zealand has fairly decisively shut the door to overseas visitors it does have a real opportunity to look at tourism in a new light, post-pandemic," he says.
When Tony began writing his guidebooks in the early 1970s with wife Maureen overtourism was not a concern. Travelling the long-route from England to Australia, the couple founded the publishing powerhouse to encourage cash-savvy travellers to get out and see the world.
Now 500 titles, and 120 million copies later - he has to admit his guides might be in part to blame for the boom in visitors coming to countries like New Zealand.
New Zealand is a special case, with some travellers flying up to 26 hours to visit - but that did not mean that it was immune to the pressure of tourist crowding.
"Overtourism in New Zealand may have looked very different from the version which concerns European cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam or Venice, but it was certainly a genuine concern," he says, at least until Covid-19 put temporary pause on the problem.
While operators around the country may be hurting, Wheeler says the temporary pause in visitors may be a blessing in disguise. New Zealand has been offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent international travel. One that could become a model for the rest of the world's tourism rebuild, post-pandemic.
Hey, big spenders
On the face of it, Minister Stewart Nash's advice for Tourism Providers to focus on "wealthy" individuals makes sense. Maximising spend while minimising the number of visitors – it sound like a way to rebuild a flagging travel sector without overrunning the country.
Wheeler is not so sure.
"If you want to limit tourist numbers pushing the entry price up is the easy solution," he says, "but it's not necessarily a good idea."
High net worth individuals not only tend to spend less time in the country, they also tend to spend it at more rarefied attractions and accommodation. Those not catering to the 1 per cent, will not get a look in.
"Aren't backpackers, staying for longer, travelling more at surface level, spreading their expenditure into local communities, a better idea than jet-setters racing around the place as fast as possible?"
Countries like Bhutan have been using price point to limit the impact of tourists since way before Coronavirus. However, the Central Asian kingdom has little else beyond Aman Resorts (one per 150000 people) to offer visitors.
"I'm not sure an image as the world's Aman Resorts capital is necessarily a good one to cultivate."
Wheelers' suggestion for New Zealand: be less like Bhutan and more like Belgium.
Having recently worked with Visit Flanders, he found a natural comparison between the Flemish speaking region and New Zealand.
"I contrasted their situation with New Zealand's, because they don't have the 'long distance to get there' problem which New Zealand faces," he says. Surrounded by European countries, a trip round Bruges was a realistic day-trip for visitors from France, Holland or Germany. Even Brits could take a direct train from London St Pancras. However, like New Zealand, until Coronavirus the area relied upon mostly international tourists, particularly Aussie and Kiwi visitors seeing the war graves around Ypres.
Like the push for New Zealanders to "Do Something New" in their backyards, Belgium is being asked to explore places off the tourist track to help share the load for when international guests return.
The Venice Problem
In the lead up to the Coronavirus pandemic, Venice came to symbolise overtourism.
Like the cruise ship MSC Opera, as it went careening down the 16th century canals, visitor numbers were simply out of control. This was not for lack of trying. The city had tried any number of ways to limit visitor numbers.
In the lead up to 2020 the Citta Di Venezia had begun charging daily tourist taxes and enforcing them with surveillance technologies that would make North Korea envious.
The only thing that reduced visitor numbers was last year's pandemic, for which Italy was among the first places outside of China to enforce travel restrictions.
However, many travel experts predict it won't take long for travellers to return with a vengeance. Before state lockdowns, the city had become one of the flashpoints for blue-flame thinking on how to fix overtourism.
In an interview with Sarah Bennett for her book100% Pure Future – New Zealand Tourism Renewed published by BWB, Wheeler recently proposed instead of means testing tourists with visitor taxes, we should be testing visitor's interest in a destination.
He proposed "tests on Renaissance Italy" as a better way to thin out tourists, so those with a genuine interest can enjoy it in peace.
However, Wheeler wasn't the only person dreaming of holidays to Venice.
Last month, Swiss economist Bruno Frey put his own twist on the Venice problem. Freys' solution: "build more Venices".
"Lets increase the supply," he recently told Bild magazine. "Let's take parts of Venice and build them up absolutely in the same way as in the original place and invite tourists to go there."
With replicas in Macau and Las Vegas, Frey told the BBC that tourists seem to get as much enjoyment from "riding the boats and hearing the singing" on Macau's imitation Grand Canal, as they do the real thing.
In Frey's opinion the premium tourists put on authenticity or seeing the "real" Mona Lisa was irrational, especially when you see how long people are willing to wait to get into the Louvre. "How can you even be sure you're seeing the real one?" asks Frey.
It would certainly reduce crowding, travel time and plane emissions to invite visitors to a replica closer to home.
Might mini Milford Sounds do the same for New Zealand?
But before TNZ begins franchising out a 100% Pure theme parks, Wheeler had his reservations.
"There are lots of places which market themselves as 'go there without all the hassle of going to the real thing,'" he said. "Isn't seeing the African wildlife more reliable at Disneyland than at Masai Mara?"
He worries eliminating the hassle might be to cut out the part of what makes travel worth while.
Having been to Macau, Wheeler had to admit the replica Venice was impressive - or at least "amusing". Sharing a photo of a Macanese gondolier, the indoor canals are a sensation. However more enjoyable still were the sights along the way from Shanghai, which he described as "real travel to a fake destination."
Perhaps instead of building more of Venice – we could follow the example of Belgium and New Zealand, by exploring and raising the experiences found beyond the beaten track.
"The major concern for New Zealand tourism is that the temptation is clearly there to wind the clock back to things as they were pre-pandemic and carry on exactly as before – after the lengthy Covid-19 shutdown," says Wheeler.
Ahead of the promise of vaccines and a reopening of borders, we have an opportunity for a "genuine tourism reset". We should weigh up the value of different types of tourism to build a more robust travel economy. It is our opportunity to leave behind some of the worst aspects from pre-pandemic travel, and take forward some of the lessons from this period while we had New Zealand to ourselves.