Exploring our love/hate relationship with New Zealand tourism

3 May, 2017

There is something strange going on with our biggest earning export industry. While tourism is booming spectacularly (bringing in $34.7 billion in 2016 and driving record growth in jobs and hotel building), New Zealanders remain unconvinced about the legitimacy of tourism as an industry and a career choice.

NZ Tourism and our love-hate relationship with it

At a time when tourism is creating thousands of new jobs, why has it been downgraded to a non-university entrance subject in schools? Why do so many parents ‘get the hint’ and hope their kids do something else? I argue we are burdened by two sets of historical baggage, which are negatively affecting opportunities in the tourism sector for this country.

Firstly, New Zealand has long history of distrust of the tourism industry and hospitality work. The sector was considered ‘frivolous’ by many until the 1980s, with one Member of Parliament strongly resisting investment during the 1960s: The time is not right for further capital expansion in a field which is frankly … only an experiment. We should not encourage … the building of hotels or the development of a tourist industry which is of doubtful value in any case. That sense of uncertainly remains to the current day, as a 2016 Stuff article shows: There also feels something inherently insubstantial about having tourism as one of your main national industries. The jobs are generally low paid – bar staff and bed-making. Its fortunes are forever at the whim of the next global crisis.

While it can be argued that the tourism industry may have ‘redeemed itself’ with its rampant success, there seems to remain an inherited, historical fear of ‘servility’ in tourism service work fed by and reflected in the public commentary from parliament, think tanks and economists over the past six decades.

So on the one hand we need to be aware of this historical distain for tourism work, but we also need to clearly address the second set of historical baggage – the impacts of the ‘neo-liberal revolution’ on the quality of tourism and other hospitality jobs.

From the late 1970s until the Employment Contracts Act era of the 1990s, tourism and accommodation experienced some of the most extreme examples of de-unionisation, casualisation and wage reduction of any industrial sector in New Zealand. For example, the real value of the accommodation sector average hourly wage fell by 23.5% between 1979 and 2000.  It is yet to significantly recover. The loss of penalty rates and union protections have edged many of these jobs closer and closer to minimum wage work. New Zealand youth are increasingly refusing to accept these conditions, to the extent that more than a third of all hires in the Auckland tourism sector in 2016 were migrants holding temporary visas. Employers will tell you that locals just will not do it.

If we want to truly reap the rewards of the tourism boom and build a sustainable, high value, high skill future in this sector, we all need to work together. We need to start viewing the tourism and hospitality industries as high skill, rewarding, crucial components of our economy, whilst demanding policy and legislation that aims to address the lack of quality and income in many of the sectors jobs. We must get educators, employers, unions, and Government together, to plan a sector that rewards all stakeholders. Looking at Brexit and Trump’s America will tell you that an ever increasing reliance on cheap migrant labour may not be a recipe for future success.

David Williamson is Hospitality Head of Department.