A focus on volume over value has not been good for New Zealand's tourism industry, says Professor Juergen Gnoth. He suggests that Kiwis' own holiday experiences should be the blueprint for future development.
Professor Juergen Gnoth (Marketing) says that COVID-19 has thrown a spotlight on the elephant in the tourism room. “It's pointing its trunk at the leaders of industry and successive governments for their lack of research, imagination, understanding and answers.”
That overlooked elephant is New Zealand tourism's focus on volume over value. The rampant pursuit of quantity of tourists over quality of experience has left the industry, in this new COVID-levelled landscape, looking wan and unfit.
Gnoth takes issue with the way tourism's productivity in New Zealand is measured. “It appears stuck in the 19th century. It measures volumes of input versus volumes of output and seeks to apply measures in the vein of how manufacturing measures its goods, or how farmers count the kilos of milk solids they produce.”
The tourism ecosystem has not been well served by these metrics, Gnoth says. “The tourism service produces experiences and not just phone calls, airline seat bookings, bed nights and bungy jumps. Tourism experiences are co-produced phenomena in a far more complex and intangible way than manufactured goods.”
Gnoth notes that the profitability and productivity of New Zealand tourism has been declining since the mid-1990s compared with other commercial sectors. “The fact that we have failed to generate ideas about how to raise tourism's productivity over the last 30 years has been obscured simply by the ever-increasing numbers of tourists and the growth of tourism infrastructure eating up the landscapes. The continuous mantra that the tourism sector seeks to overcome volume by increasing value has, so far, been nothing more than hollow talk.”
By upending the tourism industry, COVID-19 has created a moment of reckoning for that hollow talk. Gnoth sees it as a chance to take stock of what it is that makes New Zealand so alluring to overseas tourists. He and his students have spent many years tracking that allure by studying the expectations and experiences of visitors to this country. Their findings confirmed those gathered by New Zealand's regular International Visitor Survey: that 90 per cent of inbound tourists report high levels of holiday satisfaction. But Gnoth and his students also unearthed the value drivers that have kept this percentage so high.
Interactive Web 2.0 technology has made the study of that holiday satisfaction a much more nuanced endeavour. Cloud-based platforms like Travelblog.org allow for hundreds of thousands of visitors to upload their travel experiences (often in the form of a brag/letter to a friend/e-diary) sans intrusive prompts or interviewer bias. “These stories are far less biased by researchers than any paper-and-pen survey can ever achieve, provided the samples are large enough,” says Gnoth.
With Dr Damien Mather and PhD student Kamal Rahmani, Gnoth scraped the internet and gathered more than 10,000 travel stories about 10 markedly different countries. Using text-mining software and applying Gnoth's newly-developed psycholinguistic analysis and process modelling, they extracted the emotions and values that tourists expressed in their experiences.
“Using linguistic theory and techniques of weighting words used in tourism blogs for their emotional and value-expressive content, we found that, in general, tourists' motivations to travel are sustained by two basic values and emotions: 'trust' and 'anticipation',” he explains. 'Trust' can be understood as the visitor's willingness to depend on a tourist attraction and its facilitators; 'anticipation' is the drive that pushes the tourist to seek out what is around the next corner.
While these are the prominent emotions and values that drive tourism globally, New Zealand shows an additional, very distinct set of values. “Thanks to the methodology used in this research, we have the first objective measures of what, in humanists' and psychologists' terms, attracts tourists to New Zealand – consciously or unconsciously. They explain why this country keeps attracting tourists despite the physical changes that occur as the country grows.”
After combing through more than 1,000 blogs written by international tourists about their New Zealand experiences, Gnoth and his colleagues concluded that their satisfaction levels hinged around the values of 'achievement' and 'respect'. Some of the most common examples of achievement-centric responses included: “climbing that mountain”, “trudging through soggy bush”, “making friends with Māori”. From these experiences, tourists gained 'respect' – for themselves and from peers.
Gnoth believes that these are the very same core values that New Zealanders identify with – and, as such, they need to be nurtured, protected and managed. They also need to form the central thread in marketing and branding for both domestic and international tourism.
“If we want to increase productivity and deepen the tourist experience, we need to research New Zealand places according to their special values and make those part of the tourism service by echoing and highlighting them across a plethora of local services. Given our recent experiences with displaced locals and signs of 'over-tourism' we must also find ways to control or cap tourist numbers to preserve authenticity.”
“If we want to increase productivity and deepen the tourist experience, we need to research New Zealand places according to their special values and make those part of the tourism service…”
New Zealand's values and attractions have to be accessible to and lived by locals first, before being shared with tourists. “Otherwise”, warns Gnoth, “New Zealand's core values will become a myth. So many tourism destinations the world over have allowed their core values and attractions to succumb to mass tourism and commodification. Think of New Orleans - how much true Creole French pioneer life still exists?”.
New Zealanders have long felt squeezed out of their own backyard by high prices and overcrowding. Tourism New Zealand's recently launched Do Something New, New Zealand advertising slogan is the industry's first stab at redirecting the nation's holiday gaze home-wards. But to win the locals back in any enduring way, the industry will have to do a fair bit of pivoting, Gnoth says.
“We need a far better understanding of how ethnically diverse Kiwis create their physical, mental and social well-being, and the role recreational activities and the outdoors play. An understanding of how Kiwis experience holidays in their own country should be the blueprint for development and investment that we can then share with international tourists.”
So, this is tourism's big reset moment. We can't afford to squander it. “New Zealand has an opportunity to reimagine itself as a refreshed, clean and green tourism destination and consider the greening investments it needs to make. It could re-emerge with more confidence of its true value. While all other industries have learned to create tremendous value through brand management, New Zealand tourism has been pretty unimaginative, even shy about experimenting with it. Values rather than volumes should be productivity's new driver.”
There's that volume over value elephant again. With planes grounded and international travel currently a distant notion, that large, grey, trunk-waving creature isn't going to budge from the tourism room any time soon.
University of Otago