New Zealand is well positioned to teach other nations a thing or two about the world’s largest industry, tourism.
Travel is part of the Kiwi DNA. It’s how we originally found our little spot at the bottom of the globe and it’s one of our favourite leisure activities. So it’s not surprising that the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute (NZTRI) at AUT University is assisting and advising governments, organisations, and private tourism operators both here and around the world.
Professor Simon Milne is director of the NZTRI, which he founded in 1999. Its aim is to bring together researchers from different disciplines and backgrounds to focus on what is now a vital industry sector in New Zealand, second only to primary industries in terms of contribution to GDP and number one in terms of jobs created.
“I wanted to develop a model where university, industry and community could partner to solve some of the challenges relating to tourism,” says Milne.
“The Institute is about using research as a tool to make more informed decisions about the development of the tourism industry. Our work isn’t simple one-off projects – it’s about creating lasting resources, skills and knowledge that can be shared nationally and globally.”
A vital platform to share this knowledge is the Institute website www.nztri.org. A key focus for the NZTRI is to provide a base from which our highly exportable tourism skills and experience can be delivered. As such, the NZTRI is designed to support postgraduate training. Graduate students and interns come from around the world to work there and learn about tourism best practice. The Institute currently has more than 20 PhD students, and since 2001 has hosted more than 100 international interns, who each spend four months working on NZTRI projects.
The Institute has also run several short courses and training programmes for Chilean tourism operators and Vietnamese tourism policymakers and has engaged with young business leaders from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand through the Asia NZ Foundation.
“We’ve worked hard to build a profile as an organisation that provides cost-effective, timely and robust training outcomes for people from around the world,” says Milne.
The NZTRI’s work – on projects ranging from coastal and marine tourism to community tourism, marketing, heritage and culture – spans the globe, with an emphasis on getting stakeholders to collaborate to develop resources that improve the visitor experience, support local economic development and protect the environment.
Its funding comes from the likes of the United Nations Development Programme, the European Union, the World Bank, and international governments and policy makers – thanks to the relationships Milne and the NZTRI associate directors have built through working, consulting and teaching overseas.
“Tourism is the world’s largest and fastest- growing industry, but it poses many challenges to destinations.
“Attracting visitors is one thing, but it’s crucial to manage the revenue they bring in and the jobs generated without sacrificing the environment, culture and quality of life of the local host residents. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an industry that’s not sustainable in the long term.
“It’s simple – if tourism doesn’t work for communities, communities won’t work for tourism. The underpinning focus of the NZTRI is to make tourism a more sustainable source of income and jobs in New Zealand, Kenya, Tonga, Canada, Chile, or wherever we are working.”
The Coast Project in Africa is just one of many programmes the NZTRI is currently involved with. It includes work in Watamu, a coastal- tourism region of Kenya, where the aim is to find ways tourism can help enhance biodiversity – especially the protection of local sea turtle populations – and create jobs and incomes to support local economic development.
“If tourism can create benefits, those communities will want to conserve the wildlife that’s attracting the visitors and boosting the local economy,” says Milne.
“Rather than having an outsider come in and say, ‘let’s build a marketing website about this wonderful destination’, the goal is that the local communities and key stakeholders will work together to develop their own online resources.”
This ‘web-raising’ technique encourages local residents to present the stories, local knowledge and information so vital to creating a rich tourist experience. It also helps those communities understand what tourism means for them, allows different stakeholders to collaborate to improve the performance of the industry, and gives everyone a voice as part of that process.
“It’s about trying to bring from the bottom up, the information, stories and rich, local detail that can mesh with the regional and national marketing strategies.”
At home, the NZTRI is working with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development on the Get Local project to help Auckland local boards and communities understand the resources and experiences they can share with visitors. It’s hoped that bringing Auckland’s rich culture and communities to the forefront of marketing will encourage visitors to venture beyond the CBD and enjoy what’s on offer around the region.
“We’re keen to see this Get Local work not only attracting visitors but also building a sense of place and community. Tourism isn’t just a tool to create economic benefit – it’s also a tool to create excitement and passion for where you live.”