AUT research links tourism to sustainable development in the Pacific

16 Oct, 2015
AUT research links tourism to sustainable development in the Pacific
Participants in a Yap workshop on International Visitor Survery research and its use in tourism SME development

Research to create sustainable livelihoods for our Pacific neighbours: this is the key goal for AUT Professor of Tourism Simon Milne.

“Tourism is important to the economies and people of the South Pacific Islands, but so is a sustainable way of life,” says Professor Milne.

Professor Simon Milne has been conducting research in the Pacific since 1985 when he conducted his own Masters thesis in the Cook Islands, and has a special interest in the links between tourism and sustainable community development.

“It’s about building decision support systems for Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that can help them make better decisions about the future development of tourism.

“That work is really about trying to understand in the first instance the international tourist - the consumer or demand side - so that we can help generate, through our research some really good practical and cost-effective visitor information for the Governments of Pacific Island nations,” says Professor Milne.

Setting the standard in the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands, a popular holiday destination amongst Kiwis, receives about 120,000 visitors a year, and there aren’t too many more that can be squeezed in and accommodated.

“Key to a successful tourism industry is to focus on visitor spend or yield rather than simply numbers or arrivals,” says Professor Milne

“It’s not about bums on seats, it’s about the quality of bums on those seats. Too much of the research that is used to develop strategies in the region only relies on arrivals statistics because that’s the only data they’ve got to work with.

“The data we get from our research is crucial as it allows the Cook Islands to target higher yield markets and enables them to shift some of their tourism away from that focal point of mainland Rarotonga, and into their outer islands.”

In 2006, the Cook Islands Government asked the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute (NZTRI), based at AUT, and of which Professor Milne is the Director, to conduct the first online international visitor survey (IVS) for the Cook Islands. This was a success, and the NZTRI has been running an ongoing IVS for the Cook Islands Government since mid-2012.

“We are now entering the fourth year of data collection, and we currently have 14,000 responses in the system.

“It is a tremendous sample size, and that’s a good thing,” says Professor Milne. “Every year we collect the data, the more we can do with it – we can mine the data in new ways.”

“From this data, we can better understand the characteristics of the visitor, their demographics, their behaviour, where they come from, why they are travelling, what activities they participate in when they travel, how much they spend and how satisfied they are with their experience.”

The online method of data collection, means the team get a really good mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback.

“That’s the beauty of an online survey – they’re not sitting in a departure lounge feeling tired and stressed, they have the time to reflect on their visit,” says Professor Milne.

The NZTRI team now have an ongoing barometer running in the Cook Islands which allows them to understand visitor changes from year to year, and from quarter to quarter. The data generated from the IVS can, for example, enable a great understanding of the impact of new government legislation on the Cook Islands tourism industry or the impact of new visitor experiences.

“This is also the first time a SIDS in the region has had that kind of detailed data. It makes a major difference because they can really take their limited marketing resources and target them more effectively,” says Professor Milne.

Replicating success in Vanuatu – pre and post Cyclone Pam

The success of the ‘Cook Islands Model’ of data collection has led to the replication of this research on international visitor trends in Vanuatu. Cyclone Pam, understandably, resulted in a big hit to Vanuatu’s tourism industry.

“However, we’ve got pre-cyclone data set, and post-cyclone data set, and that in itself is pretty unique and valuable,” says Professor Milne.

“We have a picture of what is happening to the industry before the cyclone, what they liked and what they didn’t like, and now we have a comparison to what happened afterwards, and that is going to be a very powerful tool to help guide industry development, and also to get a feel for where things are weakened - where there are opportunities to rebuild in a new way.”

This work is funded by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank, who are focused on building stronger business capacity, and growing the private sector, including, small business.

“The agenda in Vanuatu is very much about rebuilding an industry, and understanding the value of the air visitor versus the cruise visitor,” explains Professor Milne.

“The cruise industry in Vanuatu is growing massively. Our research is showing what percentage of people going on a cruise will actually come back as an air visitor.”

The other dimension that adds to NZTRI’s research in Vanuatu is the importance of understanding the emerging Chinese market.

“What does the Chinese visitor look for? How do they bring different challenges and opportunities for Vanuatu?” are the questions Professor Milne’s team are keen to find out.

Understanding tourism in the Federated States of Micronesia

In 2014, the NZTRI completed a National Development Strategy for the Federated States of Micronesia, funded by the European Union. A key action call in the strategy was the need to better understand the role of tourism in the individual states, and in order to understand that role, a solid decision support system was identified as crucial.

When it comes to the island of Yap in FSM in particular, key for their survival in the tourism stakes is understanding whether the money being spent to support and develop tourism is actually generating benefits.

Yap’s tourism landscape caters for a different sort of tourist. They have a visitor industry of fewer than 5000 per year, many of whom come for diving or business.

“Yap is a small island, with a small population, but they have big decisions to make going forward and no data to base these important decisions on,” explains Professor Milne.

“They’re at a cross-road – which way do they go with their tourism industry: the mass resort route, or stick with a higher yield, lower number type of tourist market?

“These are real fundamental decisions which will determine what direction tourism is going to take but also, the direction the economic future of the people’s going to take.

“Our IVS model and resulting data, can help the government of FSM and people of Yap to make better informed decisions about their future. Our goal is to create a self-sustaining tourism decision support system along the lines of what we have achieved in the Cook Islands,” says Professor Milne.

Business buy-in is crucial

Business support for tourism strategies is crucial to their successful implementation.

The NZTRI team is about to launch a business confidence index survey for the Cook Islands which will provide necessary insight into the way businesses are linked to tourism and how they spend the revenue they receive from tourism.

“If we can understand the visitor impact on businesses, this gives us an extra layer of information about the industry,” says Professor Milne. “It is a useful index, as it allows us to, twice a year, trace what happens to industry confidence over time.

The team are going even deeper into the Cook Islands business landscape in 2015. They’re introducing an accommodation monitor, which will help the Government and industry understand the national occupancy rate for the last two months, and most importantly give a clearer picture of what the forward bookings are for the coming 12 months.

“The Cook Islands Government will be able to specifically target any market where forward bookings are looking weak. This data capture is a first for the SIDS of the Pacific region,” says Professor Milne.

Community support key to completing puzzle

The next step for NZTRI over the coming year is to add the important community dimension to their research.

“A 360 degree approach looking at the visitor, local business and the community, is the only way we can really complete the tourism puzzle for Pacific SIDS and achieve best practice in a national tourism strategy,” says Professor Milne.

“If tourism works for communities, communities will work for tourism. If tourism doesn’t work for communities, then communities feel isolated or cut out. If they don’t feel like they are getting the benefits, then it won’t be a sustainable model for economic development.”

“Once we start to get a feel for community attitudes towards tourism - how they are shifting, and the community impacts - we can then really start to talk about a holistic decision support system.”

Those broader programmes are all driven in part by  AUT’s Strategic Research Initiative Funding which allows the NZTRI to take the IVS work they are conducting and drill down into more detailed key areas of impact: environment (what are visitor attitudes towards conservation initiatives), food (what can we talk about in terms of links between food and tourism), yachts (how do we better understand the effects of yachts in the region, what kind of impact do yachts bring with them), and national events.

Importance of outer islands tourism

The outer islands have a significant role to play in tourism in the Pacific SIDS, but their full potential is as yet, still largely untapped.

“The value of the data we have currently, shows us that people travelling to an outer island like Atiu in the Cook Islands enjoy visits that are twice as long as if they just go to Rarotonga,” says Professor Milne. “Their total economic impact per visit is twice as great as the average visit.”

“This data reinforces to the Government of the Cook Islands the true national importance of outer islands tourism – they should not be a forgotten dimension in the Pacific tourism scene.”

Building the capacity of people on the outer islands Atiu, Ulithi (Yap), and Tanna (Vanuatu) in the Pacific will enable local communities to better understand how they can link to and benefit from international visitors.

“We need to show the outer islands how much value they add to the nation as a whole, and get them on board. We need to look at how they can build their industry in a way that links to and supports their culture, their use of food, their way of life,” says Professor Milne.

“That’s really quite critical, because for these small islands, tourism really does represent one of the few options that they have to create economic opportunities for their young people.”

Eye on the future

Over time, the NZTRI aims to transfer research knowledge, technology and skills, to the Pacific SIDS themselves.

“Tourism is a vital industry that needs to be planned and managed carefully. We’re about translating the data we get from our research into real world planning and decision making processes.”

“As a University, AUT has a key role to play in helping provide the research that can guide tourism development in such a way that it works for the people and communities of the Pacific, it is also vital that we build local capacity to continue to gather cost-effective data for future planning purposes”..

“AUT has a key role to play in helping provide the research that can guide tourism development in such a way that the industry works for Pacific peoples and communities.” – Professor Simon Milne, Director of the NZTRI, based at AUT.

Online International Visitor Surveys – how do they work?

·       Visitor email addresses are collected from arrival and departure forms, and through crowdsourcing from businesses.

·       Email addresses are sent to the NZTRI.

·       The NZTRI then sends out an invitation to those people to complete the online survey.

·       The online survey comprises of quantitative and qualitative questions focused on:

o   Demographics

o   Decision making processes

o   Participation, behaviour and satisfaction

o   Visitor spend

o   Visitor feedback and comments


The New Zealand Tourism Research Institute, based at AUT, brings together experts in the tourism arena. Their goal is to develop timely and innovative research solutions for the tourism industry and those who depend on it. Their focus is on helping to develop a profitable and sustainable industry which provides tangible benefits for business, residents and visitors.

This story originally appeared in SPASIFIK Magazine, Spring 2015, Issue No.65.