The tourist tax

‘Kiwi or kitsch?', my cover story in the March/April 2009 issue of Idealog, reported on the proliferation of poor-quality souvenirs being sold here, overpricing by souvenir shops targeting Chinese visitors and attempts by Tourism New Zealand to limit ‘enforced shopping’ on cheap inbound tours from China. Allegations of price-jacking by stores associated with Chinese tour groups became such an issue that TNZ’s China Monitoring Unit spent six months researching items most commonly purchased by Chinese tourists, their retail prices and claimed health benefits.

TNZ also had concerns about the quality of some products and referred the issue to the Commerce Commission, which confirmed to Idealog that it is investigating the level of ingredients and country of origin of some health supplements.

Talks with souvenir shop assistants, tour operators and guides revealed the five top souvenirs were bee products (propolis and royal jelly), colostrum, Omega 3, lanolin cream and sheepskin products.

TNZ general operations manager Tim Hunter says the survey showed Chinese visitors were paying up to four times what products would normally cost in main street souvenir or chemist shops. For example, 100 sheep colostrum tablets (which reputedly boost the immune system) cost from $10 to $40, while the price range for 365 Royal Jelly capsules was $60 to $160.

That pricing information and the typical levels of active ingredients are being conveyed to visitors by way of Chinese language brochures and bookmarks distributed at airport arrivals concourses.

Hunter says it’s a delicate situation. “We took some legal advice about how to represent that to Chinese visitors, without being got at by the Commerce Commission or others for leading a price-fixing movement.”

TNZ’s China Monitoring Unit was set up in November 2007 to improve the quality of inbound Chinese tours that accounted for the vast majority of the 113,000 Chinese tourists who came here last year and spent more than $3,000 per head.

Over 18 months, the unit did physical spot checks on about three percent of tours from China. Hunter says that has helped stamp out enforced shopping which in the past meant some visitors endured up to four hours shopping a day to ensure operators covered costs through commissions collected from souvenir stores.

However, price gouging remains an issue. “We still have a long way to go in that area because we have no power over the retail side of things, so we think the answer is better education of travellers from China so they avoid buying things from organised shopping places.”

But Hunter says when it comes to souvenir quality; authenticity is something we have to keep working on.  That was highlighted at a TNZ meeting with travel sellers in China who were really worried about the risk of their clients being sold fake goods. “The worst thing we could do was rip them off.”

There’s no word yet on the punishment for those who have so cynically damaged our tourist industry. Our suggestion: four years’ enforced shopping at vastly inflated prices.

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