When Tourists Turn Ugly

Does New Zealand sometimes reap what it has sown from its tourism promotion ?

by Carey Davies

A week ago, I landed back in the UK having spent four months in New Zealand. I travelled the length and breadth of the North and South islands in a variety of guises – backpacker, WWOOFer, hitchhiker, vineyard worker, and for three weeks a financially crippled young man living off the generosity of deeply accommodating friends in West Auckland. I took in some incredible sights, met some wonderful people, and generally revelled in the experience of being on the enigmatic and beautiful bit of the South Pacific that is Aotearoa.

But during my time in New Zealand, a couple of stories emerged which cast us tourists in a rather ugly light. In March, a German tourist broke into a steel cage protecting historic and fragile Maori rock wall paintings in Otakou, which came to the world’s attention when a friend posted pictures of her in the act on Facebook. Later in the month a similar scandal broke when a group of young Norwegians filmed themselves killing a protected bird in the South Island.

It’s no secret that tourists can be stupid sometimes. The world over, in fact. New Zealand is not alone in having experienced crass and reckless behaviour from its camera-wielding visitors. But these incidents prompted me to think about my experience in New Zealand, and the specific type of tourism New Zealand attracts. It seemed to me they might at least be symptomatic of a wider malaise in the way tourists perceive and experience New Zealand.

I met very few tourists who were interested in New Zealand culture. Many times on my visit I heard the general view that Kiwi society wasn’t really interesting enough to produce culture worthy of consumption; the real draw was the mountains, the lakes, the beaches, the bungee jumps. Without wanting to generalise – I met plenty of people who were exceptions to this, but they were in the minority – New Zealand culture was seen as something of an oxymoron. (A view, it must be said, that I had some sympathy with, until a fateful drive changed my mind. More on that below.)

This isn’t the same as saying all tourists revel in desecrating historic artefacts and killing rare birds – in fact I never encountered anything but respect for the native culture and customs among visitors. The point is that not very many seem interested in native culture and customs in the first place. The irony of the Otakou incident is that the tourist involved was probably exceptional in actually making the effort to see historic rock paintings – but it doesn’t say much about the depth of understanding involved when there is an obvious failure to grasp that
clambering through an iron fence and over fragile rock paintings is a bad idea (almost as bad, in fact, as putting the resulting pictures on Facebook.)

What does this say about the way culture is presented to tourists when they come to New Zealand? Even if these were exceptional, isolated incidents, they might at least give pause to think about the way New Zealand promotes itself abroad and the image that results in the minds of visitors, especially as tourism grows at a faster rate than ever before.

A key moment in my visit happened in early February. A phone had been stolen from my backpack in Vietnam two months earlier, and before I had a chance to cancel the simcard it had wound up in the hands of some stranger who racked up a series of long and astronomically expensive phone calls to the Netherlands. On a Monday morning, now in Auckland, the bill came through. A black hole appeared in my bank account, and a devastatingly large number of my remaining dollars were sucked into oblivion.

Luckily, a couple of friends in West Auckland were on hand to put me up for the nearly three weeks it took to sort out the consequences of this mishap. Even more luckily, one of the friends in question was Scott Hamilton, author of Reading the Maps, a blog which, among other things, features the outpourings of Scott’s deep and long-standing obsession with Kiwi culture, history and politics.

Fortunately, Scott and his partner Cerian took the time to educate me in such matters when he had a chance to get around Auckland and its environs. On one trip down to Hamilton I was trying to dose in the back of the car, but Scott had other ideas. “We’re in one of the most historic areas in New Zealand, and you want to sleep?” he hissed at me indignantly in the car
park of the Rangiriri Battle Site Heritage Museum.

I duly dragged myself out, and was glad I did. Rangiriri was the site of a crucible battle in the Waikato invasion of 1863 – 4, where six regiments of British soldiers, including gunboats and artillery, shelled and stormed a Maori fortress loyal to the King Movement over two days of savage tooth-and-nail fighting, eventually conquering the pa at heavy losses but paving the way for further occupation of the region.

The cafe was a trove of artefacts and exhibits, including grainy black and white photographs, faded regiment banners and an evocative glass-encased diorama, all telling a story rich in personal tragedy and triumph, cultural implication and political significance that I would never have known about otherwise. And it stoked the imagination; I could picture ironclad gunboats wreathed in smoke on the Waikato River and Tioriori’s defenders pouring
musket fire at waves of invaders from earthen redoubts.

From then on I viewed the Waikato in a different light. A new dimension to the landscape opened up before me, rich in history and cultural signifiers. Landmarks like Te Teoteo’s pa and the Kakepuku Mountain acquired a new meaning, one that I would have probably have stayed unaware of had I never lost that phone and remained – as planned – on the usual tourist routes.

This experience shaped the way I subsequently explored New Zealand. I developed an interest in Maori culture, the history of European colonisation, and the more obscure elements of New Zealand history. It led me to some strange and unusual places, and some wonderful ones.

At the end of my visit I saw Scott again, and we talked about the Otakou desecration and bird-shooting incidents. Scott agreed with the consensus view that the people involved had been disrespectful and reckless, but thought any examination of the incidents by New Zealanders should include a degree of self-criticism too.

The country, he thought, was only reaping what it sowed tourism-wise. It promoted itself a vast outdoor theme park, a place for overseas visitors to indulge their outdoor fantasies and adrenalin urges. As a result it attracted the sort of visitors who were more likely to shoot rare birds and clamber over fragile and irreplaceable rock paintings. Thrill seekers, adventure tourists and the like; people with little or no interest in native culture.

The vision of an unspoilt adventure playground is integral to the image New Zealand projects abroad, and has roots that go a long way back. The prospect of a wild and untamed landscape, ripe for settlement, was used to draw colonists from Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then with the Victorian taste for exotic travel and a burgeoning number of affluent people seeking to escape soot-choked Blighty, New

Zealand’s profile as a tourist destination began to rise. Idealised images of Mitre Peak and Lake Waikeramoana adorned guidebooks. A poster campaign encouraged visitors to come to the ‘scenic playground of the South Pacific.’ Milford Track’s famous billing as the ‘finest walk in the world’ stems from an article published in the London Spectator around this time.

The pattern for New Zealand tourism promotion was established; a land of exotic flora and fauna, soaring peaks and ‘old time Maori,’ and a haven for those seeking to escape the perceived artificiality of industrialised society return to a romanticised vision of nature. It’s a pattern that survives more or less unchanged to this day (albeit not immune from satire):

This type of promotion doesn’t tell any outright lies – New Zealand is a spectacular place and few people have left disappointed by the scenery. I spent my fair share of time scrambling over sand dunes, climbing mountains, riding waves, watching sunsets, gawping at scenery, and all the other stuff the adverts promise. It was fantastic.

The problem is not what it depicts, but what it hides. New Zealand is actually more interesting than the adverts suggest. Its islands are places of genuine history and significance. But as a visitor this reality might well escape you entirely. After I left Auckland I stopped in the Waikato again, this time in Matamata. As the filming location for the famous Shire town of Hobbiton, the local Site was packed with Lord of The Rings merchandise and memorabilia. Not hugely interested in hobbits, I asked about local heritage sites, knowing the area had similar significance to Rangiriri in the Waikato wars and the history of the King movement.

The friendly but slightly surprised response suggested they didn’t get asked that question very often. I came away with a fairly sparse map that labelled places of historical importance but didn’t say anything about why they were important, or even what they were. And I only got that after I pointed it out myself.

As it happens, the local area was littered with fascinating places. There are few better ways, for example, to gain a glimpse into the colonial condition than a visit to the Firth Tower Museum, the fortress centrepiece of a 55,000 acre estate built by Josiah Clifton Firth, Yorkshire land heir turned ruthless settler-colonialist – New Zealand’s answer to Daniel Plainview, the monstrous oil-man depicted in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. And conversely, a short drive out of Matamata was Waharoa, the birthplace of Wiremu Tamihana, principal creator of the King Movement. Waharoa is now a subdued down that sits in the shadow of an abandoned factory, but its residents still have a keen sense of history and lineage and make for far better guides than anyone at the information centre.

The demotion of history and culture to a secondary position in tourism promotion is fairly typical. The Tourism New Zealand website describes the Waikato as “the perfect picture of country life” and speaks of “unreal experiences in the caverns below.” It exhorts you to visit Hawkes Bay for “Art Deco architecture, premium wines and magnificent beaches”; Northland for a “blue, green and gold world of beaches, bays and forests.” All places with complex and three-dimensional histories, but these are sidelined in favour of picture-postcard imagery.

There is a sense that visitors are not encouraged to look too deeply into things, lest they discover things which are knotty and potentially ‘embarrassing’ – like the true history of Maori – Pakeha relations, or the country’s marginalised industrial past – when actually this stuff is some of the most interesting and unique subject matter you can delve into in either hemisphere.

Another important moment for me was a visit to Auckland Art Gallery. The first painting I saw was Colin McCahon’s ‘Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury.’ It was struck me as deep right away, even before I even became aware that it was part of an attempt by a generation of New Zealand artists to articulate a distinctive national identity. McCahon and his contemporaries were struggling with the not-insignificant task of imbuing the landscape and culture of New Zealand with a meaning they could relate to. While they have been criticised for having underlying colonial attitudes, I still found it striking that the question of New Zealand identity could inspire such brooding, heartfelt meditations.

Auckland Art Gallery is also home to a large collection of works by Maori artists, who offer a counterpoint to the assumptions of Pakeha modernists like McCahon. I found it fascinating that New Zealand identity is a contested matter, an idea that is still taking shape, and a refreshing contrast with European countries, where national identity is comparatively fixed. Its identifiers – churches, cathedrals, castles, grand civic buildings, monuments, statues – are literally part of the landscape (even if, in the case of Britain, people still end up confused)

Of course, it would be wrong to say that New Zealand culture is completely overlooked. Some iconic things, like the haka, are world famous. But watching a staged performance of the haka is as close as many visitors get to Kiwi culture. More importantly, this presents culture as something from the distant past rather than living and active today. What about the efforts of poets, painters, musicians and artists working today, both Paheka and Maori? There was very little scope, in my experience, to help visitors develop a real engagement with local culture – and what did exist in this vein was often very marginal compared to the all-encompassing dominance of adventure tourism.

In the process a lot of New Zealand culture and history gets overlooked – and in some cases disrespected. Is it any wonder that ancient sites are desecrated and protected birds are shot when so many visitors travel in New Zealand with a minimal to nonexistent grasp of the meaning behind
the culture around them? It’s futile to try and make people interested in something which flat out doesn’t interest them. If people just want to come to New Zealand to leap from the world’s tallest bungee and raft through the Waitomo Caves, that’s their perfectly valid choice.

But they’re missing out. There is a parallel, less-travelled path to explore. It takes in the Waikato and a history hidden under trimmed lawns and picket fences; the majestic Hokianga, with its long Pakeha-Maori history and creative population; the Forgotten World Highway and its monuments to human perseverance. Or the Auckland Art Gallery, where you can discover that New Zealand identity is an always-evolving nexus (or Wellington or Dunedin, where you can find shocking evidence of Kiwis making music who don’t have the surname Finn). All, in their way, just as fascinating as any of the ‘cultural’ destinations of Europe, North America or wherever – just less understood and recognised.

You can never completely prevent stupid tourists from disrespecting places of cultural significance. It is the nature of the tourist beast. But you can at least try and make sure it gets the respect it deserves from the rest of us.