Agriculture Minister's 'cocky' tourism comment condemned as tone deaf

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor is under fire for saying COVID-19 has taught the tourism industry not to be so cocky after losing its spot as the top export earner to dairy.

He made the comments late last week at Central Districts Field Day.

His West Coast-Tasman electorate includes Franz Josef and Fox Glacier - some of the hardest hit, tourism-reliant communities in the country.

People in the senior minister's electorate have described his remarks as tone deaf, shocking and kicking businesses when they're down.

Glacier Country Tourism Group co-chairperson Rob Jewell could barely believe that sentiment came from his MP.

"Here's a former tourism minister who obviously knows the industry, very, very well. To make that sort of comment is just quite shocking. He was also himself a former tourism operator some years ago and I would have thought he has a good understanding of the industry."

Tourism was worth roughly $42 billion before the pandemic and was the country's biggest export industry, contributing 21 percent of foreign exchange earnings.

As a tourism operator, Jewell said businesses were proud of their industry and its contribution to the country, but they were not cocky.

"Frankly everyone will definitely be hurting from those comments. He knows full well from his visit to the community how badly we're hurting, how many people we've lost out of our community, how many more jobs and businesses are under threat while the borders continue to be closed."

As the West Coast Tasman MP, Damien O'Connor would know that, Jewell said.

He'd like an apology.

Westland Mayor Bruce Smith is disappointed with the remarks.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I would probably hope that he wouldn't say that again," Smith said.

"He is a former minister of tourism and when you're in an environment where people are losing their homes, they're losing their businesses, their cashflow has been decimated, giving them a wee kicking on the way through is not the way to do it."

National Party's tourism spokesperson Todd McClay said the Prime Minister should step in and tell the West Coast-Tasman MP to apologise.

"His comments are tone deaf and out of touch with the devastation that's taking place in tourism under his Government's watch," McClay said.

O'Connor didn't directly address questions about his remarks or apologise, instead he released a statement saying that he was concerned about hard working tourism businesses, including those on the West Coast.

"In witnessing their experiences many business sectors, including the primary sector, will be rethinking how they plan for shocks of this scale as this pandemic tests our resilience."