There is such a thing as too much tourism
There is such a thing as too much tourism. Even in tourist meccas like Queenstown, we need to find the balance between the needs of the locals and preserving the special something for tourists. Tourism has grown massively around the world. New Zealand, and Queenstown in particular, have benefitted spectacularly. The money has flowed and we are hooked. But we are hooked on the number of visitors, not on value, nor on looking after locals. This is a challenge for our entire industry.
Queenstown has a long history as a holiday destination. Hosting is its DNA. Yet, hospitality can be exhausted. Around the world there is a backlash against tourist in hotspots like Venice, Barcelona, Rome and Palma. The social license for tourism can be revoked. The needs of tourists and locals are not the same. Homes may be used as accommodation, rather than housing locals. The types of shops and services catering to tourists may crowd out services locals want.
Beyond a certain point, tourists metamorphose from an economic-life-giving force, to an economic and social predator, changing and swallowing up the very things that attracted them initially. Locals seemingly become an extra at a theme park.
We also need to be mindful of the benefits, which are not spread far and wide. Airlines, hotels, transport and hospitality operators benefit, but many of the local jobs tend to be seasonal, insecure and low-paid. The costs and benefits of tourism are shared unequally across local communities and central government. The stresses on the community infrastructure are borne by locals, but the majority of the spoils go to central government in tax revenue from sales, wages and profits.
Unless tourism can grow alongside looking after the host community, including affordable housing and maintaining the authenticity and social fabric of a location, it becomes overtourism. Housing is perhaps the most pressing issue. I reckon the Queenstown Lakes District has a shortage of around 1,500 homes. House prices are extremely unaffordable and rents have increased by an average of 10 per cent year for the last five years.
Around 1,100 entire homes are on AirBnB. They beg to be treated as commercial accommodation for rating and other regulatory purposes. But the housing shortage is much deeper than that. The crisis will not be averted without urgent action to increase housing supply, especially of worker accommodation, affordable good-quality rentals and assisted ownership homes. Queenstown risks becoming hostile to its workers and locals. There is good reason to think about an optimal level of tourism and for using tools like limiting flight numbers, taxes on accommodation, responsive housing supply and redistribution of tax revenue to tourism-intensive regions. Critically, the locals need to be part of the solution, to retain the social license for tourism to operate.
Economist, author and commentator