In the future, the recipe for the perfect tourist to Southland is someone who would stay longer, be environmentally friendly, spend more – but the kicker is, maybe we don’t want too many of them.
New Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has called for stricter freedom camping regulations and a focus on higher-value tourists.
But post-Covid-19, when the boarders hopefully reopen, what type of tourist will come to New Zealand? Will they fit the bill?
A year ago, Lumsden continued to be a hotbed of freedom campers. The Southland District Council received grants and put infrastructure in place for them in 2018.
Used to having 30 to 40 vans stay a night in the main street, it’s now down to just 10 or 12 freedom campers.
Lumsden café owner Rob Scott said those in the community were missing the freedom campers.
“Contrary to what people say, they do spend money on more than just noodles,” he said.
Lumsden Motel owners Tracy and Brian Ross have been vocal about their opposition to freedom camp in the past.
Of particular concern was the mess some campers left behind, and Tracy said younger tourists showed little respect for the environment.
She welcomed Nash’s plans to ban the leasing or hiring out of vans that weren’t self-contained, but said it wouldn’t fix the problem.
“The campervan people have a lot to answer for, but a lot of the backpackers just buy cheap cars,” Ross said.
They had welcomed many wealthier Kiwis who had travelled south to “have a look around” this year, and Ross believed these would be the kinds of tourists New Zealand should encourage in the future.
She said there was plenty to do nearby – listing fishing spots, hiking trails and cycle trails – and marketing these activities would bring tourists, and thereby money, to smaller towns.
Freedom campers in search of breathtaking vistas have traditionally been a staple on Southland roads, with many taking on “The Great Southern Smile” – travelling from Fiordland to Stewart Island via Invercargill, and then on to The Catlins.
Nestled right in the centre of The Catlins, The Whistling Frog is just a five- to seven-minute drive away from some of the area’s most stunning scenes.
That’s why owner Paul Bridson chose the location. He said accommodation businesses should be marketing themselves as a base for nearby activities.
“If you want to encourage people to stay, and do the hikes and enjoy the waterfalls, you have to put that in the marketing,” he said.
Bridson believed freedom camping in New Zealand would eventually peter out.
“There’s a number of these camper van companies going bankrupt,” he said, adding that councils would realise that it wasn’t cost effective to build infrastructure to support the style of camping.
Standards for holiday parks had risen, making them more inviting for paying customers, Bridson said.
“They’re not like the little old camping grounds of yesteryear.”
The Whistling Frog had been experimenting with offers for higher-end tourists this winter, by opening a lodge to adventure tourist groups and providing fine dine experiences, for example.
“These have gone off like a house on fire,” Bridson said.
Once these experiences were available, travellers would pivot towards them, he said.
“It’s a great opportunity to reset. You can’t change it when everyone is in full swing.”
Bridson hoped it would be a matter of quality over quantity when international tourists returned.
“New Zealand is so underpopulated that it can easily be overwhelmed. We’re going to slow down and switch back to the New Zealand that we love.”
On Stewart Island, international visitors have typically been Europeans in search of outdoor activities, like guided walks.
While freedom campers didn’t often bring vans over, there were plenty of backpackers on the island.
Beaks and Feathers owner Angela Steffens operates guided tours on Stewart Island and said the backpackers were more likely to do some “freedom walking” than pay for an experience.
Her ideal tourists were visitors who were willing to put money into the community.
“They want to spend money doing things with local businesses.”
She expected post-Covid travellers to be pickier about the experiences they chose, as they wouldn’t have as much money to spend.
“I imagine we’re not the cheapest place in the world to visit.”
This would require some clever and creative marketing on the part of small businesses, she said.
“For the little guys, our marketing budgets are miniscule compared to the bigger guys.”
Steffens hoped to draw attention to the atmosphere people would find when they got to Stewart Island.
“The island is relatively untouched. It’s a slower pace of life,” she said.
Southland District Council deputy mayor Ebel Kremer said it was this atmosphere that drew visitors to the region and fewer visitors would help maintain it.
“It’s about enjoying the experience. Take Milford, for example: If there were 10,000 people going every day you’re not going to enjoy that experience.”
Kremer also called the border closure an opportunity to rethink tourist marketing.
It would be important to make information about Southland’s attractions easily accessible while on the road, so visitors could stay in the area longer, he said.
“Digital information is going to be paramount.”
There were several factors that would influence the type of tourists who would come when the borders reopened, he said.
Kremer expected air travel would be expensive for quite some time, limiting visitor numbers.
“It’s highly probable that they’ll be high-end tourists looking for experiences.”
The region would always welcome freedom campers, as long as their vehicles were self-contained, Kremer said.
Out at Lumsden on a sunny Thursday morning, Joana Prieto and Bruno Pellizzari from Uruguay sat sipping maté (a traditional South American beverage), at the freedom camping site.
They were on their way to Queenstown from Invercargill, but made a point of stopping over at the spot they’d heard only good things about.
The couple were in New Zealand as seasonal workers and took some time to tour the South Island.
Lumsden, and Southland, had lived up to their expectations and the two were enamoured by the friendliness they’d encountered along the way.
Scott, who’s also a Southland District councillor, said they were an example of how tourists who may not be considered high-end would still contribute to the economy.
“The backpackers of today will be the wealthy tourists of tomorrow,” he said.