What do tourists want?

If you’re from New Zealand, you’re probably used to viewing tourists with mild distain.  I’m not sure why, it seems silly, but we do.

I think people should treat tourists in the same way that you would treat intelligent and curious children, rather than the way we do treat them, which is as if they were dairy cattle with credit cards.  After all, not even dairy cattle should be treated like dairy cattle.


New Zealand isn’t a cheap country to travel in.  The currency is expensive, and we’re an expensive place to live even for us.  Our cheese costs more than cheese anywhere, and despite the fact that it’s not very good we export it and pride ourselves on it.

Our attitude to such things seems much like our attitude to our 100% Pure branding.  “If that’s what we say we are, then we must be that” we cry.  And then we walk around with our chests puffed out feeling quite proud of ourselves.

It’s a kind of arrogance to assume that anyone would be interested in the sorts of things that we try and foist on tourists.  These are often people no wealthier than us, who have travelled a long way to meet us on our own terms, because they’re curious about us.  And yet we seem to assume that anything they do here will exceed their wildest expectations.


Let’s say that I’m a hypothetical Chilean web-designer called Rodrigo.

I’m thirty-three.  My girlfriend and I broke up, and so I’ve taken a month off while she moves out of our apartment in Valparaiso and moves in with the banker she started sleeping with.  I’ve come to New Zealand because the landscape looks amazing in half a dozen films I’ve seen, and my girlfriend was hooked on Flight of the Conchords, so she’ll feel she’s missing out.

But I don’t want to fly across the world to be given the chance to pat a sheep.  I know what wool is.  I wear wool everyday.  Even if it’s brought from Gap, even if it’s bought from Zara.  I’m not wowed by paua-shells.  Elsewhere they’re called abalone.  And kiwifruit are from South America, as are Fejoas.

It was expensive to fly here.  I could have bought a new Macbook Pro for what it cost me to get here.  So I’m prepared to rough it a little, but I’m not prepared to live off Weetbix in 8-bed hostel dorms full of teenaged European males.  Nevertheless, this is probably what’s going to happen to me, as I can’t afford the hundred-plus dollars a night for any sort of hotel room.  Airbnb only has shoeboxes and strange things called “farmstays” listed, and the couchsurfers here only seem to want to host teenaged European females.

The train I catch down the country costs twice what flying would have, but moves at about walking pace, and there are such constant heavily accented announcements about unintelligible local trivia and some sort of spiral that I stop listening, and so miss my stop.  I just want to walk in the forests and eat local cuisine and listen to local music, but you seem to need a car to get to any of the forests, the local music is mostly murky garage bands, and there’s no identifiable local cuisine at all.

I pay a lot of money for a package tour as I’m not meeting anyone and feeling pretty lonely, which just means that I continue feeling lonely, but in Hobbiton, and while patting a sheep.



I’m not Rodrigo any more.  I’m me again now.

And some of my best times when wandering have been when people like Rodrigo have shown me round, and let me see their world for a moment.  Watching stars while drinking wine with students on a fifteenth century rooftop in in Coimbra, ruining a shirt while trying to help fix the engine on a stalled launch that then took me for free to Isla do Mel, in Brazil.  (A roadless island where people move everything by wheelbarrow)  Singing badly in a gospel choir in Du Pont, South Georgia.  My singing was terrible, but they still fed me.

I don’t mind being embarrassed when I’m a tourist, or even being uncomfortable, but I do want something real.  Because I’m real.  Where I live is real.  Where everyone lives is real.  So what’s the point in unreal places?  We have the Internet so we don’t have to actually try and create them in the real world.

Perhaps this my horror of theme parks coming out, but I really don’t think many people cross oceans to get strapped onto a flying fox that lands in a field of sheep, or to ride a horse that was used in lord of the rings.  You can do both of these things in Motueka.  But I think most people want to do something more real, even in Motueka.

The sort of encounter you have with Goofy or Cinderella in Disneyworld is what I would call unreal.  I know people who have worked in both these roles, and it’s been a pretty strange experience for them.  The Goofy I know quit after a concerted attack of eight-year-olds pushed her into a pool and she couldn’t get her giant plastic head off and was only rescued from drowning by one of the parents.

Would children do this to a real person?

Disneyesque myths are not myths of humanity, they’re myths of inanity.  Let’s steer away from these.  They’re at best awful re-interpretations of what were once meaningful stories.  In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid the protagonist finds that every step after she gains her legs is like stepping on knives.  There’s no mention of this in the Disney version.  How has this been forgotten?  It’s a tale about the cost of changing the world you live in, and I know which version makes more sense to me.

Most of the culture we offer tourists in New Zealand is down near the level of Disney.  I don’t think Disney makes for intelligent and well rounded children any more than our tourist industry encourages intelligent and well-rounded tourists.   And being snobby towards tourists is about as fair as being snobby towards children.

I know that trying to cater to the tastes of people with totally different backgrounds to you is always going to be difficult.  It’s like being a chef with no taste buds, a perfumer with no sense of smell, a deaf musician.  But not much of the tourism on offer in New Zealand seems to include the possibility that a tourist is just like you, but from somewhere else.












A First Attempt at Addressing Culture-Related Discomfort

Bali is one of those places in the world that people are mesmerised with, infatuated with. David Attenborough pretty much summed it up for me in his beautifully retro documentary The Miracle of Bali from 1969. It’s the culture, it’s mysterious, it’s in tact, it’s aesthetic and sensual and it involves so many rituals that you don’t have to understand to appreciate. And if you’re one of those people who have made Bali home, you would have come to love that smell of incense and the familiar offerings that line sidewalks and shop fronts, filled several times a day with flowers and treats for the gods.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in Bali, and being half Indonesian, I’ve always grappled with defensive feelings about the island being swarmed by tourists and expatriates. I know that the locals depend on both for their economy. I know that the influx of Indonesians from other islands are just as threatening to the Balinese, as Javanese builders for example are seen as more ‘efficient’ employees because they don’t have to take as much time off work to attend customary prayers and ceremonies, of which there are a lot.


In the past 30 years I’ve seen Bali go through many transformations. I’ve watched development spread from Kuta down the beach to Seminyak and beyond. I’ve seen it go from the hair braids and beaded tops of the 80s to becoming a hub a extreme hipness with one-off boutiques and cocktail lounges. I’ve seen it completely dead and quiet after the bombings, to becoming busier than ever not long after. And I’ve always loved it. Lots of people do. This is why they come from all over the world to live there, starting NGOs, opening schools, buying real estate, starting artisan businesses, and living the life-style.

But hot damn it makes me cringe when I read about the bohemian expats of Ubud (inland part of the island that has become popular in recent years), their sustainable yoga fashions and righteous seed planting initiatives. When I meet someone overseas who has their own jewelry or clothing business, and then they tell me that they get everything made in Bali, it raises my hackles. And as much as I know that I really can’t generalise, that there really are people doing amazing things from the island, why is my first reaction always one of suspicion?

Balinese locals are  themselves are often the first to complain that it takes some foreign attention to address local issues ranging from agriculture to waste management to infant mortality. And many local artists and designers wouldn’t have had nearly as much exposure nor opportunity if it wasn’t for some overseas investment. And maybe that’s what bothers me. Maybe it’s unsettling to see a culture championed by another culture in a way that seems superficial and self-serving. Maybe it’s also frustrating to feel like Indonesians don’t have the support or infrastructure to do the kinds of things that gain as much international acclaim and attention. It’s also painful to know that a lot of the very problems that are being addressed and ‘solved’ are often times an indirect consequence of a lifetime of tourism cum expatriation. While the solutions were there to begin with. But now they have fancy English words for them – sustainable, permaculture, holistic, organic, fair trade, yogic, free range, biodynamic – and these concepts have become globally trendy, so they’re being given back. The problem bringing the solution, surely there’s a fable to illustrate. Does this make any sense? Probably not, OK I’m done.