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Since joining Queenstown’s regional tourism organisation in 2007, Graham Budd has overseen staggering visitor growth in New Zealand’s foremost tourism resort. Originally general manager marketing of Destination Queenstown, he took over as chief executive almost eight years ago. Before leaving yesterday to head up Southland’s regional development agency, Great South, he spoke to PhilipChandler about the highlights of his years in Queenstown, and the issues that growth has thrown up.
I’ve had quite a decent tenure here, and all organisations and CEOs need to refresh from time to time. That time came for me when I felt the organisation was in good shape, and after getting the [extra $900,000] funding we needed to deliver what was required, I was able to say, ‘yeah, that’s been done’. Completely coincidentally, the role at Great South came up, and it appealed to me for its broader mandate.
How did you feel about twice being overlooked for the CEO’s job?
I was disappointed both times, but I think I was pretty determined that I had the right credentials and the right experience by the third time. Remember, all that happened within a relatively short time of me starting at DQ. I’ve never dwelt on that too much, subsequently, ’cause it’s nearly been eight years that I have been CEO, and that’s probably more important to me than what happened historically.
What have been your highlights?
I would say it’s achieving the additional investment and funding, which is actually for the benefit of the community. My other highlight would be building a structure and a team that’s relevant and appropriate for the times we’re in. We’ve also been through, in my time, two rebranding and repositioning exercises which is very significant for future proofing and being relevant to market.
You also successfully lobbied for a visitor levy, which is now in the pipeline?
That initiative had been started by others, well before me. I spent some time trying to understand visitor-levy mechanisms from around the world and ultimately formed the view this was appropriate for Queenstown if implemented the right way. I felt it was unfair our residents had to be paying for infrastructure to support visitor growth and, secondly — and ironically, given the conflict with some of my accommodation businesses — it would relieve the rate and cost burden on our accommodation providers.
That’s a disappointment from a community and a destination level, absolutely. That remains a significant and important opportunity for Queenstown. In my time there’ve been two bites of that cherry. One that fell over shortly after I arrived was the Remarkables Centre, then more recently we didn’t get one established.
In a recent speech, you said there was too much negativity in the community?
I think the community has both benefited from, but also struggled with, some of the impacts of that growth and, frankly, our infrastructure has not kept up with that foreseeable growth. However, some of those expressing their frustration have been unduly negative, not constructive. It’s not been constructive or helpful in a community trying to find solutions to issues. It’s got personal, at times, and I think it’s been very unfortunate. We’ve been on the end of that, as well, when we were looking for funding increases.
What about concerns Queenstown could suffer from "overtourism"?
It is absolutely ridiculous, in my view, to talk about Queenstown and overtourism in the same breath as you’re talking about places like Barcelona or Rome or Paris. We have nothing like that issue that some of those places have. By most global standards, Queenstown is a tiny wee place, and the visitor numbers we have, while they’re reasonably substantial, are still, in my view as a resident and not just from a professional perspective, perfectly manageable, apart from some transport issues. None of this is to dismiss the concerns about climate change and the environmental impact of travel, but kicking our own community in the shins around this isn’t helpful or constructive.
You feel NZ Transport Agency has been slow to recognise Queenstown’s transport infrastructure requirements?
We’re a bit hamstrung in Queenstown by the fact our main roads are state highways so it’s not actually local ratepayers, through our council, who can solve all the problems. It’s my view NZTA, over many years, has seriously under-invested in our region, and that continues to be the case. The most frustrating part is that the tourism and residential growth we’ve had has been entirely foreseeable.
There seems to be some negative sentiment around the [DQ-owned] Queenstown Winter Festival?
Queenstown should be extremely proud of the Winter Festival, it is uniquely a celebration of Queenstown. It’s recognised around the world, and certainly domestically and in Australia. Why anyone feels there’s a need to be negative about it, and picky about it, I still don’t quite understand. The business community pays for it, yet our community is able to enjoy free entertainment, free fireworks, all that sort of stuff. Just enjoy it, people, embrace it, have fun. If you don’t like it, don’t come.
You’re struck by the professionalism of so many Queenstown tourist operators?
The reason people are attracted here, and their satisfaction level remains extremely high, is partly because of our natural assets, of course, but it’s also the built environment, the quality of the product and the services and the capability of our businesses. That attracts, then, new businesses and then more visitors. All you have to do is travel a bit to know we remain world-class in terms of the quality, in broad terms, of the experience we offer visitors.
From suffering a shortage of hotel rooms, is there a risk of an oversupply with more hotel construction under way?
It does appear in this sector there is very rarely an equilibrium between supply and demand. Hotel investors, it appears, need to see high occupancy levels before they’re prepared to push the button. Ironically, by the time they get to that, you’re almost in the next cycle. I only hope those investors have a long-term view of their investment, but if there’s a short-term-gain view of it, then it could be tough for a little while.
Is Queenstown over-reliant on the tourism industry?
When you talk about reliance on something, it immediately has negative connotations. Tourism has been and remains the backbone of our economy, but it has also fuelled and been the catalyst for the development of other sectors. It’s enabled digital and tech sector growth because they’ve cut their teeth on tourism. It has fuelled the construction sector, which is another significant sector here, which has in turn fuelled other businesses that provide services. It’s also become a place people can work remotely from off the back of the connectivity and services that we have.
Will Graham Budd return to Queenstown to live?
I’m keeping a house here, but whether I return to live here long-term or not, I don’t know, because I’m going to a new place, a new venture, and I’m excited to get to know that better.