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The vexing issue of tourism

14 October 2021

Covid 19 is here to stay and even NZ has moved from a strategy of elimination to one of attempted management.

We're sucking it up and admitting that the virus is about to become endemic and something we'll just have to learn to live with, or die with -- depending on how the dice roll.

If you've had a second dose of the vaccine within the past 6-8 months then odds are that you'll be very unlikely to suffer more than mild symptoms, if any symptoms at all. Of course if you have some chronic or acute underlying condition that probability may vary somewhat, and not in your favour.

The bottom line would have to be that from this point forwards we should try to keep as healthy as possible (diet, excercise, etc) and expect to be exposed to the virus sometime before the autumn of 2022.

That's all fine and dandy but there is a bit of a fly in the ointment.

The problem is that a great deal of NZ's economy has, at least until 18 months ago, been built around the tourism industry.

Whilst it's tempting to suggest that once we bite the bullet and accept the endemic nature of CV19 our borders can be reopened and the international tourism industry will burst back into life, I'm not so sure this is the best idea.

Every time the virus jumps hosts there is the risk of a new variant being created -- that's the nature of a virus.

Here in New Zealand with our limited population of just under five million, there's a much lower chance of some new, potentially more potent variant arising than there would be in a country with a larger population. With this in mind, opening the doors to unfettered flows of overseas visitors would significantly hike the risk of seeing significantly higher numbers of death from Covid 19.

We've already see quite a few variants from the original strain of the virus and some of those, like the Delta variant, have been far more adept at spreading and causing chaos. To date we've been very lucky that our present vaccines have been somewhat effective against these variants but we know that this will not always be the case. Those vaccines only target a single protein on the virus and if a subtle mutation sees that protein replaced by something different, we effectively return to unvaccinated status overnight.

The best way to avoid the situation where we find ourselves (once again) to be a nation of five million people with zero immunity is to limit the numbers that come across our borders and maintain a sensible level of vigilance for new variants.

I find it interesting that very few people seem to be acknowledging the cost that international tourism poses to our environment and even our own quality of life.

Sure, in the past it has contributed significantly to our export receipts and created quite a few jobs but those jobs were generally minimum-wage, low skill offerings and the profits from that industry tended to flow to just a few well-positioned companies or individuals at the top of the food chain.

As I've said in previous columns, we need to stop catering for the bottom end of the tourism market and instead focus on earning almost as much by providing an exclusive, elite, high-end tourism experience for the *few* that can afford it. This would ensure that a significant percentage of those export earnings are retained whilst limiting the number of visitors crossing our borders.

As for the jobs... well in case nobody noticed we have some significant shortages of both skilled and unskilled labour in this country right now -- to the extent that special visas have been granted to workers to come into NZ and fill vacancies in a number of our industries. Instead of having tourism workers sitting around on their bottoms being paid a stipend by the taxpayer whilst they wait for their old jobs to restart, maybe it's time to say "sorry, back to work doing something else because those jobs are no longer viable".

Unfortunately, I suspect that the government will continue to show a lack of leadership in this issue and will be swayed by the constant whining of the tourism sector. As a result, we'll see legions of low-value tourists returning to our shores bringing goodness-knows-what variants of the virus with them.

The sad thing is that, more likely than not, this will see us all thrown back into lockdown and the borders slammed shut again when the sigma, tau or upsilon variant tears through a vulnerable population of New Zealand like a chainsaw. What will the tourism industry do then?

Of course, as usual, I could be completely wrong and we may be better off throwing huge sums at promoting NZ to the world and maybe even subsidising airfares so as to fill those hotels that will now no longer be used as MIQ facilities. Mind you, we'll have to kick out all the people also housed in our motels and hotels as guests of WINZ won't we?

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