Don’t close the door behind you

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    Scratch the surface of Waiheke and one of its first, and potentially most disturbing, traits you reveal tends to be a constant battle over the concept of ownership – that longevity and settlement incur on the individual a proportionately greater right to prevent change.

    The tension between development and status quo often relies on the nature of how many residents first arrive on the island, ie they fall in love with a snapshot version of Waiheke, set up home here and then decide to “close the door” behind them so they can freeze their perfect version of the island for ever.

    This inherently means that few residents are able to agree over direction and strategy for Waiheke because they all reside in very different places, constantly referring back to their personal idyll, blinkered to the fact that everyone around them may have a different perspective.

    At its most disruptive, this trait is capable of fragmenting productivity and activism by creating competitive pressure groups which otherwise would be pushing in the same direction.

    Few industries highlight this more than tourism, which has become the apparent yardstick for the island’s economic health and which is the subject of an exhaustive 61-page report published this week by Project Forever Waiheke.

    The picture the report paints is not that rosy – it concentrates almost entirely on the issue of over-tourism – and it is no doubt set to inflame debate over the interpretation of its data for months, if not years, to come. But it also highlights a division in the community by pointing out that this industry is, on the whole, being driven and staffed by relative newcomers.

    For example, although almost half of (43 percent) of all respondents to the survey had some engagement in providing tourism or hospitality services (30 percent as business owner/operators or otherwise employed full-time in the sector, and 13 percent part-time), people who had lived on Waiheke for fewer than five years were “significantly more likely to be engaged in providing tourism services than those who had lived on the island longer”.

    And on an island where the gulf between income and housing affordability is already creating a two-tier community, it was also interesting to note that “tenants were proportionally more likely than owner-occupiers to be engaged in the tourism sector on the island, including renting out part of their home”. 

    The issue here is also magnified when you see the report’s detailing of the gap between Waiheke residents involved and not involved in tourism when it comes to perceived benefits.

    Between 2015 and 2019, those engaged in tourism were not only vastly more likely to have perceived an increased personal or household income due to tourism compared to those not engaged in tourism (56 percent as opposed to eight percent), but they actually saw and experienced the island differently: 28 percent saw an improved standard of living due to tourism opportunities as opposed to nine percent for those not engaged; 31 percent saw improvements to the island’s infrastructure as opposed to 19 percent for those not engaged; 43 percent found a lack of access to affordable accommodation as opposed to 27 percent for those not engaged; and almost half (42 percent) of people not engaged in providing tourism services perceived zero benefits of Waiheke tourism for them personally. 

    According to the report, we live in a community where longer-term residents (those who’ve been here more than 10 years) are more than twice as likely (38 percent) than newer residents (18 percent) to identify no benefits of increasing tourism to them, and where the report’s authors were able to conclude that their data “demonstrate clearly that the economic benefits of tourism do not trickle down to most members of the residential community at large”.

    It is quite clear, not only locally but for the whole of New Zealand, that tourism is a tiger that needs to be tamed – tourism minister Stuart Nash made that clear back in May when he called for a “reset” as a way to both protect the environment and prevent the over-reliance of small towns and regions on visitors’ dollars.

    But for Waiheke to be able to plot our way out of the many issues raised in the report – and the vast majority of residents (92 percent) identified negative impacts attributed to tourism in their recent personal experience – there must be buy-in from the whole community. 

    Our current tourism troubles have largely been created because there’s little cohesion between the fragments of our community willing to “close the door behind them” once they’ve arrived. And this lack of direction has allowed a virtual free-for-all for those willing to tap into the obvious tourist market that Waiheke provides. 

    So to create a workable and enjoyable future for Waiheke – for visitors and residents alike – we must all start to see the island through others’ eyes. • James Belfield

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