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Some people see Queenstown as full of rich people, migrants and a tourism industry that damages our environment. For these people right now, there is a sense of "you got what was coming to you" towards Queenstown.
If this is a fair summary of that district, why should the rest of New Zealand care about what happens to our place? And why would government invest here? If there is so much money lurking around the district, why shouldn’t they dig themselves out of their tourism-dependent hole?
Before Covid-19 hit, Queenstown was humming. There were jobs galore and the population and economy were growing twice as fast as the national average. On the flip side there were residents who had visitor fatigue, employers were reliant on migrant workers, it was an expensive place to live and the infrastructure was bursting at the seams. But despite all this, the district was an amazing host to people from around the world, and many left having fallen in love with our country.
With Covid, the challenges faced by a remote, tourism-dependent district haven’t gone away. The international visitors have all but disappeared but affordability, workforce, and infrastructure challenges remain.
So why should the rest of New Zealand care?
Queenstown is a bubble, and a hub. It is a bubble in that it is the only international mountain resort in Australasia and the visitors, workers and residents come from all corners of the globe. Many of them have few links to other parts of the region or country.
It is a hub in that it is a gateway to the rest of the South Island. People who visit Queenstown Lakes go on to spend three times as much in the rest of the South Island compared to those who travel in the South Island without visiting Queenstown.
Beyond being a tourism hub, what else does Queenstown Lakes offer the country?
A deep pool
New Zealand depends on exporters. It has one of the world’s most globalised economies and depends heavily on exporting its products and services.
And yet we are an isolated country, dominated by small businesses that struggle to invest in R&D and international marketing. Whether it is investing, sitting on boards, or acting as mentors, New Zealand needs a deep pool of internationally experienced people to help grow our exports.
Queenstown Lakes is where many of these people call home. It has been termed "hyper-local and hyper-global" — a place where you can live remotely, yet be connected internationally.
If the district loses its appeal, these people will be lost, potentially from New Zealand.
This doesn’t imply that we should bow to famous high net worth people wanting to live here. High net worth does not necessarily equal high net value for our country. We embrace those who want to add value beyond the dollars they spend, not just those that are seeking to escape their problems at home.
Where we fall (back) in love
The South Island is stunning but for the majority of New Zealanders living in northern cities, it can feel like a world away. But with the combination of deals available, direct flights and the inability to travel internationally, over the last few months Queenstown has helped Kiwis fall in love with their own country. Whether it’s a road trip up the West Coast, walking the Routeburn or biking the Otago Rail Trail, Queenstown is the natural gateway to a love affair with our place. And in times of stress for many, the opportunity to appreciate the amazing place we live in is a tonic.
The district is New Zealand’s iconic tourism destination, with its combination of scenery, adventure activities and variety of choices about where to stay and dine.
Other export industries such as wine have latched on to the fact that once visitors return home they are more open to buying products from their favourite holiday spots. This expands the value from visitors beyond what they spend while they are in the country. And there is more that could be done to capitalise on the flow of visitors through the district. How could we inspire them to buy other New Zealand products, invest in New Zealand businesses, send their children here as international students or even move here as a skilled migrant to add value to an export business?
Done well, we can turn our relationship with visitors who visit the Queenstown Lakes district from a three-night stand to a long-term relationship where the benefits flow well beyond the borders of the district, to the region and the country as a whole.
A testing ground
The Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground (SHPG) has forged an international business out of winter testing of cars and auto components. Being a place of extremes, Queenstown Lakes is ideally placed to test and launch new innovations.
Another example is visitortech — software that helps streamline hospitality and tourism businesses. The district is home to some innovative such businesses, and growing a tech solution off your dominant industry is a well-proven approach. Infrastructure is another area where Queenstown Lakes has unique challenges that make it more open to new solutions.
The district can also be a testing ground for people. Traditionally our young people have spread their wings and tested themselves by travelling on their OE. With this option off the table at present, what better place to grow a young person’s independence and sense of adventure than Queenstown?
Why New Zealand should care
Queenstown Lakes has some amazing people stepping up to tackle the challenges it faces. But if the rest of New Zealand leaves them to it, the pace of change will be slow, and there will be an opportunity lost.
Whatever you think of Queenstown Lakes, where it heads matters to our country. It is our tourism icon, but more than this, it offers a unique window into international consumers, talent and investment.
It is also a place from which New Zealanders leave with a sense of pride, having fallen in love with where they live.
Yes, there is money in Queenstown, and yes the tourism industry has its fair share of challenges. But dig below your preconceptions and you’ll find a place that has the potential to grow our exports, talent and expand our love for the place we all live.
■ The views expressed in this column solely represent the personal views of Peter Harris and not the views, policies or decisions of the Queenstown Lakes District Council.