The debate over the increase in tourist numbers and the benefits and pitfalls of more visitors per year has polarised opinion over how much is of a good thing we can truly sustain.
The number of tourists is not necessarily the main concern to focus on, but what type of tourists we are trying to attract.
The luxury liner cruise ship visitors are increasing and add to the overall total of tourist a year but they affect us very little as far as environmental issues are concerned as they are only here for a few hours. Most of them are pre-booked on tours around the island in vehicles, or on lagoon cruises, with a minority wandering the shops or roads.
These tourists, if they pay a landing levy, will add money to the tourism or government coffers via the visitors’ fee. There are three main local businesses who benefit each time, and possibly a handful of local artisans who set up stalls at the wharf, and the main businesses closest to the wharf will see some of the money they are spending. It is like having the numbers without the burdens of increased sanitation requirements, hire cars and bikes on the road, and the dumping of left over rubbish from duty free and polystyrene food containers.
We have been courting the North American market for quite some time and we are making inroads with the direct flights from Los Angeles and with more US tourists getting to know us as a relaxed, alternative to the likes of Hawaii.
They come in couples or small groups, stay in a range of accommodation and have money to spend on our tourist attractions and also in our local economy via market stalls and our shopping outlets.
They are able to communicate with ease and are strong promoters of our culture to their friends when they return home.
They love that we are the Hawaii of 60 years ago and often comment they are glad we are not built up like Hawaii and Tahiti. They see us as a true “island” destination without the complete remoteness and lack of modern facilities like telecommunications and internet.
The UK Europe market has a long haul to get here and have usually tacked us onto a visit to New Zealand or Australia. Visitors from the UK are similar to the North Americans, while the Europeans usually have more language barriers but most have a basic knowledge of English that gets them by.
Again they travel as couples or small family groups and stay in accommodation of all kinds, and they enjoy our natural environment and our tourist attractions.
They are the strongest number of visitors to Aitutaki and the outer islands. Their money goes into the local economy and they are conscious of environmental issues globally and adhere to the recycling practices we have in place. They have a romantic idea of the islands and we fit their imagery perfectly with the added benefit of being westernised. Much of the way we live is familiar to them and easily adopted by them.
The demographic that benefits themselves as much as they benefit our economy is New Zealand Maori.
They travel in couples and family groups small and large. They stay in a variety of accommodations and they do everything. They book our tourist attractions and usually not just one cultural show but all of them.
They will do all the cultural tours and the fun activities. They frequent the local markets and small convenience shops and spend money across the board in our shops, tattoo artists, souvenirs, clothing, markets and food stalls, and rental car agencies.
They not only appreciate the environment we live in, they are personally connected with our history and when they learn this for the first time they become committed to returning with more family and friends to share the love and the feeling of “coming home”. We know they have this connection but many of them do not as it hasn’t traditionally been taught in New Zealand schools.
Many go home and fundraise to bring their schools and tamariki over to learn the connection and take pride in finding the home of their vaka.
This is a very powerful group of word-of-mouth advertisers who embody our goal of staying true to our cultural values and promoting our language and local ways as part of our tourism goals and initiatives.
Tourism can do a lot to determine the types of tourists we attract here who will add value and assist in our bid to be sustainable in our culture and environment.
We don’t want to be like Palau, who opened their doors to large volumes of tourists only to regret the impact on their islands and are now making moves to limit numbers.
Samoa and Tonga are finding the same. Overseas large cities are now having locals marching against the sheer volumes of tourists in their home towns. We should learn from these events and tread carefully.
The tourist market we need to attract are the ones who put money into the small local business economy not just feed the large resorts or businesses that are owned by overseas investors.