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Its borders shut, New Zealand prods local tourists to ‘do something new’

                                A kite surfer is airborne as he races across Lake Wanaka with the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps behind.
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A kite surfer is airborne as he races across Lake Wanaka with the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps behind.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand >> In the world envisioned by a recent Tourism New Zealand advertisement, a khaki-clad employee of the fictional Social Observation Squad rescues wayward travelers from the clichés of Kiwi tourism.

“Lower those arms nice and slow,” the officer, played by comedian Tom Sainsbury, bellows through a megaphone to a pair of travelers committing a “summit spread-eagle” photo opportunity at Coromandel Peak, which overlooks the South Island’s Lake Wanaka. He pulls them away from the precipice and dispatches them instead on a bicycle winery tour.

This lighthearted ad, intended for a domestic audience, went viral internationally last week for its tongue-in-cheek call to action: Stop posting unimaginative photos on social media, please — enough with the hot-tub shots and images of glossy beachside legs.

But behind the irreverent slogan, “Please don’t travel under the social influence,” is a serious intent. Though the country has seen its pandemic-hit economy come surging back, regions that depend on foreign tourism remain devastated.

The New Zealand tourism board is, therefore, asking New Zealanders to do something quite difficult. Its “Do Something New” campaign — the Social Observation Squad video is the latest installment — encourages locals to find new ways to look at what is right in front of their noses.

Before New Zealand closed its borders to international visitors, tourism constituted a significant part of its economy, employing nearly 230,000 people and contributing 41.9 billion New Zealand dollars ($30.2 billion) to economic output, according to the tourism board. About 3.8 million foreign tourists visited New Zealand between 2018 and 2019, with the majority coming from Australia.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, the domestic market simply can’t make up the losses. International tourists spend about three times as much per person as their domestic peers.

International tourists are also more likely to seek out and learn about local culture, like that of the Maori, New Zealand’s Indigenous people. So Maori cultural tourism has been hit particularly hard by the sharp drop in visitors from abroad, and some operators have had to adapt.

Nadine Toe Toe and her family run Kohutapu Lodge and Tribal Tours in Murupara, a northeastern village of about 2,000 people, of whom about 90% are Maori. Before the pandemic, about 98% of the company’s customers came from overseas.

“We wanted to create a really truthful, real, cultural experience that shows our history, but also our reality,” Toe Toe, 43, said. “When COVID struck and we lost all our business overnight, we were suddenly faced with the reality that the domestic market does not do ‘cultural products’ — it’s not on the priority list.”

Larger businesses are also struggling. “We’re suffering, there’s no doubt about that,” said Sir John Davies, 79, a businessman who owns multiple ski fields, the guided walks at the Routeburn and Milford tracks and the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook National Park.

Recently, he said, the Hermitage had 20 guests, down from about 600 in a typical year. He has had to cut staff at the hotel from 230 to fewer than 50. “It turned over $18,000 yesterday — the lowest I’ve ever seen in 25 years,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to get domestic tourists. I mean, we always have.”

Tourist spots around the world, from New York to the Himalayas, have struggled without sightseer dollars. In Bali, the Indonesian vacation spot, some hospitality workers have returned to farming. Some places, like Istanbul, have tried to soldier on. Others, like Hawaii, are reopening nervously.

“We cannot fill the hole that is left by a lack of international visitors,” said René de Monchy, the interim chief executive of New Zealand’s tourism board.

New Zealand’s own solution, via the “Do Something New” campaign, is to encourage New Zealanders to get out and experience “their own country as a visitor,” de Monchy said.

Since the borders closed, putting Bali and Bondi Beach in Australia off limits, New Zealanders have taken on the challenge of taking vacation in their home country with a certain patriotic zeal. Domestic tourism spending rose 12% year-over-year between June and October, according to the New Zealand-based economics consultancy Infometrics.

But while some have tackled “bucket list” activities or tours, many have continued to frequent the same old spots they always loved, flocking to the beaches of sunny Northland or the Coromandel peninsula over the summer months of December and January. In the meantime, tourist towns like Queenstown and Rotorua have floundered, as New Zealanders look past the destinations or experiences favored by international visitors.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said that until most New Zealanders are vaccinated — an effort that could stretch well into the second half of the year — noncitizens will not be able to enter the country. For tourism business owners in New Zealand, that means there is no way to plan for the months ahead.

The hope is that foreign tourists will eventually return in droves. Though intended for folks at home, the “Do Something New” video is laying the groundwork abroad, too: It has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and shared on social media around the world.

In the meantime, tourism operators like Toe Toe are left surveying the damage.

“We’ve shed so many tears, I don’t think I’ve cried so much my entire life,” she said. “People do not understand what we go through, what we’ve lost, and how we can’t even plan, because we don’t know. There’s no time frame. How long can you hold on for?”

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