NZ tourism and driving around

We looked into renting a kayak ($20.60 U.S. per person/per hour, the only place I’d ever seen a rental kayak priced per person vs per kayak) on Lake Wakatipu in Queensland but nixed it when we found out we would only be allowed to go a few hundred meters from the rental point. If I didn’t like that, I had to hire a guide for a lot more money. At first, my cynical mind figured this to be another revenue enhancement scheme. Later, I found out its genesis was from an incident a number of years ago when a couple of kayakers drowned after a storm kicked up suddenly. The government had a similar reaction regarding white-water rafting. After a couple of rafters died because their life jackets were tied the wrong way, guides are now required to buckle the outside of every rafters’ life jacket for them. Signs remind you that ‘your safety is your responsibility’, but New Zealand, like its neighbor Australia, is in many ways a nanny state.

Help! Help! The icon is drowning!

Help! Help! The icon is drowning!

Still, New Zealand deserves credit for developing and maintaining great hiking and biking trails. As for the nanny state, because of accidents and fatalities involving bicyclists, the government put up a lot of ‘share the road’ billboards. I sure wish they’d do that at home.

The tourist industry brought in $3.7 billion in 2013 accounting for 3.7% of the GDP. Another $9.8 billion indirectly flows in due to the effects of tourism. These are awesome amounts . In the words of our Fox Glacier guide, “Queenstown wants your money”. The same applies to the whole of New Zealand where there is extremely focused, concentrated and aggressive tourism marketing. And tour prices are extremely high. Another tour operator candidly told me the philosophy was that since people spent a lot to get here, they would naturally spend a lot on activities as well.

It’s a dilemma for budget travelers since New Zealand is very expensive.
Start with essentials like accommodations, food and (if you’re driving) gasoline, when you get to tourist and adventure activities, this place is a real budget buster. By comparison, I spoke with one kiwi traveler who was surprised at the low prices in NYC as she had heard it was supposed to be expensive. Say what?

The most compelling attribute of New Zealand is its scenic beauty. There are lots of things to do but having done lots already and considering they cost double or triple than elsewhere, it became important to use discretion in the activities we chose. Did we really need to do another whale watch/zip-line/bungy jump…? I’m glad we like hiking.

There’s an interesting system at the prolific iSite Tourist Information Centers. Most are owned and run by councils or local town governments; I was told some are privately owned but never entered one that was. They have lots of information but some centers also act as a retail store selling New Zealand clothes, memorabilia and kitsch, from clothes, hats and t-shirts to bottle openers and refrigerator magnets.

Despite being primarily government-owned and operated, the i-Site centers are a mafia-like enterprise. They only service and support the businesses that pay membership fees plus charge them commissions– 10% of anything they book for their members. They don’t carry brochures of non-members and they often won’t tell tourists about anything which they don’t receive a fee. On more than one occasion, when finding out I wasn’t going to spend money, I got a ‘we don’t want to know from you’ attitude.

When I asked about Milford Sound cruises, one desk-agent tried to convince me to book a tour which included the bus to and from the cruise instead of driving myself, reasoning that I could enjoy the scenery instead of driving, that the roads were very narrow and that the buses had the right of way. When I actually drove there, I determined the last two reasons to be outlandish. I had one or two other similar experiences with these government certified agents. These are the kinds of techniques I’d come to expect from third world up-sellers. Guide books may refer to these as ‘annoyances’. I don’t recall reading guide-book warnings for annoyances in first world countries but they are no less annoying.

This is supposed to be a country that is environmentally friendly, however, the i-Site centers push paper like it was going out of style. It wouldn’t matter if I said I already had a map or brochure, they’d really want to give me another one anyway.

I’m happy taking various public or private transportation while traveling in foreign countries. But if you want to see places that are geographically spread out and require mobile flexibility, renting a car is necessary. I enjoy driving and have fun seeing a different part of the world pass by through the frame of a car window. It’s also interesting to see the people through that lens.

One of the things I found counter to most experiences with the laid back, easy-going New Zealanders is on the road. It’s not unusual that if someone wants to pass you and you don’t pull over fast enough to let them by, they can get impatient and irritated pretty quickly. And don’t dally while crossing the streets as a pedestrian; you might get hit. The former reminds me of Massachusetts, the later reminds me of NYC.

There are many similarities with Australia. The car culture is one of them. Like Australia, where cars are a necessity and driving distances can be long, it’s surprising to find a different type of car culture than we have at home. It’s very common to see people driving well-maintained cars that are 10 or even 20 years old. I like that.


4 thoughts on “NZ tourism and driving around

  1. Another interesting view of our home country! I agree with you entirely that the i-sites are discouraging and insulting to tourists, and it’s a disgrace that misinformation is given out rather than promote an attraction that might be more reasonably priced. Entry prices are very high to some attractions, and even family rates don’t make them particularly affordable. I’d not heard the view that tourists spend a lot to get to NZ so will pay higher prices once there !!! Not a “good look” for our lovely country, but I’ve heard a similar view on visiting Switzerland and they get away with it.

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