Kiwi or kitsch? A look at the NZ souvenir industry

New Zealand pitches itself as a tourism hotspot—the world’s adventure playground, pure, clean and green. But when it comes time for our guests to leave, what do they have to remember us? By Amanda Cropp

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Photographs by Tony Brownjohn

New Zealand pitches itself as a tourism hotspot—the world’s adventure playground, pure, clean and green. But when it comes time for our guests to leave, what do they have to remember us? By Amanda Cropp

The plastic souvenir alligator from Florida in my office is gaudy and green. I bought it in Florida, though it has ‘Made in China’ printed on its guts. It reminds me of a ‘Please don’t feed the alligator’ sign at an Everglades motel and of Tourist Season, a novel by Miami writer Carl Hiaasen, in which a serial killer dispatches a tourism promoter by stuffing a rubber alligator down his throat.

Despite this soft spot for the odd bit of kitsch, I returned home from the same trip with hand-blown art glass from Boston and an enamelled picture of Apalachicola on the Gulf of Mexico.

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My US souvenirs in many ways reflect the extremes of the New Zealand souvenir industry, running the gamut from tasteless tat to works of art. At one end of the spectrum you’ll find paua shell-encrusted toenail clippers, sheep-shagger boxer shorts, packets of chocolate kiwi poo and $2.50 purple plastic tikis. But more discriminating visitors can also invest in stylish paua jewellery, luxury merino and possum-fur jumpers and contemporary Maori art.

Whatever the price tag, mementoes are big business. According to Ministry of Tourism statistics, in the year to June 2008 international visitors spent $490 million on gifts and souvenirs, while domestic tourists spent more than $220 million.

Price-conscious tourists buying cheap trinkets don’t necessarily care whether their souvenir kiwi pins are made in New Zealand or churned out in a sweatshop on the other side of the world. Even pounamu jewellery carved in New Zealand is shipped to China for polishing, then sent back here for sale. But discerning independent travellers do care about the provenance and quality of their mementoes, and within the souvenir industry there’s disquiet about the flood of budget-grade imports associated with the proliferation of cheap inbound group tours from China, one of our fastest growing visitor markets.

Chinese tourists on so-called ‘zero-priced’ shopping tours essentially pay for little more than their airfare. The cost of their accommodation and so on is covered by commissions (some as high as 60 percent) paid on purchases at specific souvenir stores. To preserve profit margins, shops are sourcing cheaper goods—often from China.

This trend worries Melissa Parr, general manager of family-owned 56-year-old souvenir business Parrs Products, who worries that New Zealand will end up like the ultra-competitive Australian market. “We don’t want to go down that route of cheap rubbish.”

But the heat is on. In 1952, Parr’s grandmother designed a Maori doll in national costume after consulting well-known Rotorua guide Rangi. Although the costumes are still made here by outworkers, the doll bodies are imported, as are about 40 percent of all Parrs’ products. “We were making soft toys in New Zealand 15 years ago, but it got too competitive,” says Parr.

On the other hand, Parrs’ locally-made skincare lines—based on ingredients such as thermal mud, honey, lanolin, kiwifruit and paua extract—account for half the company’s business, and a growing export market helps offset any downturn in tourist sales.

Along with the burgeoning demand for cosmetics, souvenir homewares are on the increase. The owner of Studio Ceramics, Chris Harvey, a former general manager of Crown Lynn, set out to provide a New Zealand-made alternative to the flood of imported souvenirs. His kiwiana designs appeal to locals, too, and the ceramic tiki, kete, fern fronds and shell bowls sell in mainstream homeware chains as well as gift shops and souvenir outlets.

Harvey says they don’t even attempt to compete on price. “People are prepared to pay $30 for a tiki. They’ve become trendy. World has them on t-shirts and Dick Frizzell has his ‘Mickey to Tiki’ design.”

Jonathon Milne, manager of eight Simply New Zealand stores, believes that instead of buying purely decorative items, tourists are going for practical things such as bags, glassware and pottery. “Maori carvings used to be a very large part of our merchandise mix,” he says. “We still sell some but in far less quantity, and some of our stores don’t even stock them.”

Overall, the souvenir industry has become much more fashion-conscious. “The clothing changes faster than it used to. The same design used to be printed year after year—now it’s there for a year, then it’s gone.”

As he notes, the crossover between art and souvenirs is becoming more common, a trend that led New Zealand Post to open Real Aotearoa shops in Auckland and Christchurch in 2006. High-quality New Zealand art and craft is displayed in minimalist gallery-style decor and traditional postage services are tucked discreetly down the back.

Real Aotearoa sales and marketing manager James Te Puni says New Zealand Post’s stamp sets and commemorative coins (such as the $520 gold Hillary coin) were already popular with international tourists, and the art is a natural extension of those products.

Te Puni deliberately avoids using the ‘s’ word. “There’s a bit of baggage with it in the New Zealand context. If you put up a sign saying ‘Souvenir store’, you’ve probably pitched yourself to the bottom third of the market.”

This is confirmed by a conversation I have with a well-heeled Australian who ends up spending $2,000 within ten minutes in Real Aotearoa’s Queen Street branch. She was looking for unique New Zealand art as a reminder of her holiday, and is emphatic that she’d never set foot in a regular souvenir shop.

Te Puni says expat Kiwis after something from home are also an important part of his customer base, and they don’t want mass-produced items either.

That feeling is becoming evident in the group tour market, too. Three-quarters of visitors to Rotorua’s Agrodome arrive in tour parties and joint-owner Warren Harford says of the two souvenir shops on site, the one selling mostly New Zealand-made souvenirs and knitwear is showing more consistent growth. Exclusivity is an issue and shoppers are fed up with seeing the same goods in every store. “Visitors are saying, ‘Bugger this, I want something more aligned to my visit to New Zealand that’s made here rather than in China.’”

Up the road at Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, chief executive Te Taru White would ideally like his gift shop to be an import-free zone. “It’s a challenge, but to be blunt I don’t want Chinese stuff in our shop. I don’t want to be selling Chinese [made] back to Chinese [tourists]. I want to be selling Maori culture to the rest of the world.”

White hopes new standards for inbound tours from China will have a positive spinoff for the souvenir industry, allowing visitors to shop where they want so they can compare quality and prices instead of being herded into commission-paying stores. The rules set by the Tourism New Zealand’s China Monitoring Unit say visitors must not be subjected to enforced shopping (up to four hours a day on some tours), charged inflated prices or be sold fake or misrepresented goods.

Tourism New Zealand general manager operations Tim Hunter says Chinese travel agents he spoke to last year were particularly concerned about the authenticity of souvenirs and overcharging. “They are really worried people might be charged a lot of money for something that is not the real deal.”

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To combat that, Te Puia intends introducing its own mark of authenticity for carvings produced at the arts and crafts institute, and is a strong supporter of the Toi Iho trademark launched by Creative New Zealand in 2002 to promote authentic Maori arts and crafts, with a register of 170 accredited artists.

The Ngai Tahu iwi has already registered a trademark to prevent imported jade being passed off as pounamu (see sidebar). There is also an issue with paua: Heather Gerbic, owner of Auckland shop Pauanesia, says some items apparently made of paua are actually dyed Mexican abalone.

Compulsory country-of-origin labelling is another option to promote locally made souvenirs, and Aroha Mead is a strong advocate of that. Mead, senior lecturer in intellectual property and indigenous culture at Victoria University, would take it a step further to include community-of-origin labelling. “So you can say, not only is this an authentic Maori kete, but it comes from this community.”

Chinese travel agents are particularly concerned about the authenticity of souvenirs and overcharging. Ngai Tahu has registered a trademark to prevent imported jade being passed off as pounamu. There’s also an issue with paua: some items apparently made of paua are actually dyed Mexican abalone

Mead worries about the impact of our free trade agreement with China because of that country’s reputation for copying and disregard for IP rights. She says several designers of Maori-themed products such as t-shirts have already unsuccessfully tried to take Chinese copycats to court. “As soon as the Chinese companies see trouble they just liquidate and go and set up another business, so they can’t be held accountable.

“According to Winston Peters, Maori should just stop whining about all of this and be happy and feel flattered that people see value in our culture and want to use it. I know we can’t be so precious that we think that we are the only ones who can use it. I don’t take that line, but I just want to see a balance and that when Maori work is being used, it’s being acknowledged where the inspiration comes from.”

Simply New Zealand’s Milne says the Maori cultural element is important to the souvenir market and is appearing in more contemporary products, such as designer Caroline Mitchell’s quirky beaded tiki purses and glasses cases.

He acknowledges that while authenticity is important, there will always be a market for souvenirs at both ends of the spectrum. “If you go to Rome there’s a lot of cheap and nasty stuff there, but you can go around the corner and buy a beautiful pair of Italian leather shoes. I think we’re exactly the same here.”

Pounamu: green gold

Much of the jade for sale in our souvenir shops isn’t native at all. It’s imported from Canada or China, as the industry keenly awaits a decision on commercial supply of pounamu owned by the Ngai Tahu iwi.

John Sheehan and Chinese business partner Dracky Zhang are joint owners of The Jade Factory and between them they have 11 jade outlets: eight here and three in China. The company opened a factory in China about 15 years ago and a third of its 300-strong workforce is based there.

Sheehan says about 40 percent of the labour involved in working greenstone is in the finishing, and pieces carved in New Zealand are sent to China for polishing because it’s cost-effective.

But Sheehan says the commercial advantages of manufacturing in China will disappear over the next ten years, so he wants to expand his Hokitika lapidary workshop—yet he’s struggling to get sufficient quantities of jewellery-grade pounamu to do so.

The lays the blame for our current reliance on imported jade squarely on Ngai Tahu. The passing of the Ngai Tahu Vesting Act in 1997 gave the tribe ownership of all naturally-occurring pounamu within its area, with the exception of the Arahura River catchment which was vested in the Mawhera Incorporation, a Maori landowners’ trust.

Since then, three West Coast helicopter pilots have been sentenced to jail terms for large-scale pounamu thefts (at the time of writing, pilot Dave Saxton is on bail pending an appeal; his son Morgan, who was also bailed, was killed flying his helicopter in November last year). Public fossicking for pounamu on South Island West Coast beaches is permitted but is limited to what an individual can physically carry out unaided within a 24-hour period.

The Ngai Tahu Pounamu Resource Management Plan, approved in 2002, covers extraction and supply of pounamu for the commercial greenstone industry. Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu chief executive Anake Goodall says Kaitiaki Runanga are now working at their own pace to develop individual management plans for pounamu in their respective areas and are eager to begin supplying the industry “as soon as possible”.

But John Sheehan is losing patience. “Ngai Tahu would only have to mine ten to 15 tonnes a year to provide the industry with raw material.”

Souvenir industry sources say selling imported jade to tourists is acceptable, as long as the buyers are informed. But much hangs on interpretation of the sales patter and a non-English speaking person told an item is “New Zealand-carved greenstone” may well assume it is indigenous stone, when in fact it was only carved here.

Sheehan says anything made from pounamu is clearly labelled as such in his outlets and costs about 30 percent more than imported jade. “We don’t label everything country of origin, but we are upfront about it. We don’t differentiate between what’s carved in China and what’s carved here but we are happy to tell them.“

Sheehan says the reality is that many tourists buy on price. “They don’t give a damn where it’s from. There was a time when we could sell large $25,000 carvings, lots of gold rings, but that part of the market seems to be slipping away and we are into a more budget mentality.”

Weaving stories

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Already a major player in the tourism market, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu has branched out into souvenirs with a line of shawls made from a new merino and possum fur fabric created by AgResearch.

The designs, launched in March, were created by Ngai Tahu artist Ross Hemara and are based on ancient rock art drawings of tiki, kuri (dog) and manu (birdman).

The Aho brand name translates into English as threads, strands or lines. Ngai Tahu iwi business development manager Joan McSweeney says it means expressing the tribe’s culture appropriately, yet also getting a commercial return. “It’s about weaving the strands of our past into something new, yet based on tradition.”

A percentage of sales will go to the Ngai Tahu Rock Art Trust, which plans to open a new tourist centre in Timaru.

The shawls retail for between $250 and $350 and McSweeney says they’re targeting discerning tourists who want a portable, authentic, New Zealand-made product with an indigenous component and a story attached to it. “Price doesn’t seem to be an issue. Money is not necessarily the primary driver, but the other value is.”

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