Govt funding for Air NZ is among the big issues around future of our tourism industry

As  reports pile  up on the success of  vaccines against  Covid 19, is  it  time  for  New Zealand  to think of how  it  will  return  to   normal?

The  vaccines  will  not  simply eradicate  the virus, so governments will need to  start thinking about  how  to live with it.

The London “ Economist”  last week pointed  up the problem for NZ, a country which it  said had  sought to be  Covid-free by bolting its  doors  against the  world.

“ In this  way it has kept registered deaths to just 25, but such a draconian policy makes no sense as a permanent defence.   NZ is  not  North Korea. As vulnerable Kiwis  are vaccinated , their  country will come  under growing pressure to open its  borders—and  hence to  start to tolerate endemic Covid-19 infections and deaths.”

The task  for  governments is  to  work out  when  and how  to switch from emergency  measures to policies that are  economically  and socially  sustainable indefinitely.  The  Economist reckons the  transition  will  be  politically  hard   in  places  that have invested  a  lot  in being covid-free.

So  this   is  what is  looming  for  the  Ardern government:  can the  Prime  Minister  repeat  the  success  she has  achieved in coping with the  outbreaks?

Already  the  pressures  are   building  on  her  to  reciprocate freer  travel   with Australia.

Vaccine  passports  and restriction   in crowded  spaces   could become mandatory.  And  will  mask-wearing  on public  transport  become  part of  everyday life?

In  an  economic  sense  New Zealanders in  general  have not  experienced  the  blows  dealt  by Covid-19 that  countries like  the United Kingdom  have  had  to absorb.

But  operators  in international  tourism, the  hospitality  industry  and educational  services  have  been  affected  with  varying degrees of severity.

Jobs  with  Air  New  Zealand   were  among the  most  coveted in the country.  And  the  question is  being asked:  how  far should the  government   go  in refinancing  the  national  airline  (in which the state has the  largest stake)?  There  are  those  within the  government   who  think  Air NZ’s  future  is  as  a  regional  airline,  leaving  long-haul services  to  countries  with  deeper  pockets.

That  feeds  on  to  another  issue over  how  far NZ   wants  to go  in  encouraging  international  tourists  to  return  to their  shores.  This is an  issue  which Simon Upton, the  Parliamentary  Commissioner for   the  Environment, spotlighted last week  when he  argued  that the  tourism  industry has been  cosseted   for too long while  its  impact  on the  environment has been ignored.

“There is broad  support for the  idea that protecting tourism livelihoods in the short term should not morph into a slow but inexorable return to the status quo in the long term,”  Upton says.

The commissioner presents a set of four policy proposals to combat some of the more pressing environmental challenges faced by tourism.

* Introduce a departure tax that reflects the environmental cost of flying internationally from New Zealand, and use the revenue to support the development of low-emissions aviation technologies and provide a source of climate finance for Pacific Island nations.

* Make any future central government funding for tourism infrastructure conditional on environmental criteria and aligned with mana whenua and the local community’s vision for tourism development.

* Clarify and, where necessary, strengthen the tools the Department of Conservation can use to address the loss of wildness and natural quiet at some of Aotearoa’s most spectacular natural attractions. This includes tightening rules around commercial activity on conservation lands and waters.

* Strengthen the existing standard for self-contained freedom camping, improve oversight of the certifying process and require rental car agencies to play a greater role in collecting freedom camping infringement fees and fines.

”These proposals are not 100 % of the solution, but together, they just might make a difference,” he explains.

So  while  Air NZ’s  CEO  Greg Foran  is pressing the   Finance Minister for money to keep  his business in the  air, Parliament’s environmental watchdog   is  telling the  government  to  tax   international tourists   as  hard as it can.

Before  Covid-19 struck, international tourism  headed  NZ’s export  earnings, with the number of  international tourists  topping 3.9 million a year.  This  points  up the dimensions of the value  to the  country of the industry.

We can look   at  it  another  way:  it  is  just one of the  many challenges confronting  Ardern   and  her Cabinet as  NZ gets closer to opening up its borders. Or  is that Ardern  and her team of  5  million?

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