We don’t need any more taxi drivers with university degrees. We do need tradespeople. We need truck drivers. We need entrepreneurs with access to overseas markets. And we need investors. I’m sure there’s plenty of others, too. People who are prepared to bring their unique skills, networks or investment dollars here. And people who are prepared to be taxed in New Zealand on their substantial worldwide income.
Tourism offers the same opportunity. Just as it’s difficult to attract a more committed immigrant, there are plenty of challenges in adapting to the changing market in a manner that sees us attract a different and more profitable tourist.
However, irrespective of who they are, or why they come, we must first get ready to receive them. Our tourist infrastructure is adequate for the type of tourist we have historically attracted. But if we want to lift our sights, target more money spent per head, or attract working tourists who deliver a better level of skills or service, we need to be better.
I’m sure we must have plenty of tour buses, campervans and rental cars parked up somewhere and ready to go at a moment’s notice when the influx arrives. But the roads they will need to travel on are a mess.
I’ve tried my best to travel around New Zealand during the past year. And I have driven the length of the country twice in the past few months. Some of our tourist routes are in bad shape. We must have more orange road-cones per kilometre of roads than any other country in the world.
In theory that means work is happening. But as I travel I notice that most of the “coned off” highways have little, if anything, going on. I’ve recently travelled the same intercity highway five or six times, only to notice zero progress on a 1km stretch of road despite 2km of orange cones and four “50 Temporary” signs protecting the area that will one day get some attention.
Our wifi is fantastic – in the city areas that have benefited from the high-speed broadband rollouts. But elsewhere it is sad and slow. Our tourist destinations aren’t well connected. The worst wifi is at some of our tourist hotels. Guess what? In 2022 and beyond, tourists are going to expect wifi.
Our mobile coverage is intermittent at best in many areas. Don’t believe me? Try keeping your emails up to date and checking your Facebook feed on the road from the West Coast of the South Island.
Our customer service needs a tune-up, too. Sure, some of our tourism operators get it. The bus drivers who will take you to Doubtful Sound are fantastic. And there are moteliers in Alexandra and Christchurch who try so hard you feel like paying them more than they are asking.
But they’re the minority. By and large our customer service is poor. I don’t want to arrive at a restaurant and wait for 10 minutes before being offered a drink, and 20 minutes before it arrives.
I don’t want to stand in a store and be ignored while the store manager chats to her friend on the phone. And I don’t want to hire a rental car or a mountain bike that hasn’t been cleaned properly.
We are no longer in a position where people are going to come in and tolerate average service. With their new enthusiasm, our tourists will also have a new expectation of standards. If we are targeting a better tourist, we need to offer a better experience. We need to sell, and upsell.
We need to deliver experiences that are better than our visitors expected. That means saying please and thank you. It means rapid response to their queries and fair pricing for the experience we deliver. It means good roads to travel on and mobile connections that don’t fall over in the middle of a conversation.
I know it costs money. But we seem to be throwing plenty of that around at the moment. And if we do a good job, the people will keep coming, our margins will recover and it won’t take long. But in the first instance, we have to exceed every expectation.
One thing we can be sure of, is that the world will change again. And our markets will recover. And the people will come again. And when they do, we had better be ready.
This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 27 February 2021.