Māori tourism operators aim to thrive with renewed focus on domestic market

Detail of the Entrance gate to the Waitangi Regional Park, New Zealand.
Entrance to the Waitangi Regional Park. Photo credit: Getty

Up to 1000 Māori employees working for Māori tourism operators - and more than 17,000 Māori across the entire tourism sector - have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

But Māori tourism operators are determined to thrive during alert level 2, and make the most of the opportunity to teach New Zealanders a thing or two about te ao Māori.

Māori Tourism chief executive Pania Tyson-Nathan said the losses suffered so far were simply devastating.

"Māori who have lost jobs within the Māori tourism sector is, at this point, still under 1000," she said.

"Māori who have lost jobs across the tourism sector as a whole could be anything between 17,000 to 30,000. The 17,000 is 30 percent and the 30,000 is 50 percent. We've got about 60,000 Māori working in tourism across the board so it's a significant chunk."

Thankfully no Māori tourism operators have been forced to fold, but some are in hibernation.

Tyson-Nathan said up to 40 percent of Māori tourism businesses had business continuity insurance, which covered - in some cases - disruption caused by pandemics.

However, 40 percent of businesses, including those who offer a taste of te ao Māori through cultural experiences, target an international market that is not available to them while New Zealand's borders remain closed.

Māori tourism businesses were already thinking of innovative ways to appeal to New Zealanders, including how they could work with schools, Tyson-Nathan said.

"They are re-purposing their businesses now for a domestic market so, for example, what is your appetite for the New Zealand education market? What might that look like? Look at where education is going around teaching New Zealand history in schools. These guys are already having these types of discussions," she said.

"Somebody talked to me about Maunga Hikurangi today and I said, 'do you know how many Māori have grown up away from home and who would love to go there and learn about their whakapapa?' Maunga Hikurangi could give them that.

"Imagine going up there, staying at the marae for a couple of days, and someone giving you a tour of Hikurangi and sharing whakapapa. So we're trying to think about those markets too, and how we can be creative."

Minister for Tourism Kelvin Davis said he was confident there was an appetite in the country to learn more about te ao Māori, and tourism could be an avenue to meet that demand.

"One of the things we've noticed is that New Zealanders' desire to learn more about Māori culture is growing and so as we move into the recovery stage, and New Zealanders will really only be able to travel around New Zealand, there are massive opportunities for Māori in tourism to be able to showcase our culture and our history."

One of the country's most historic sites, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, will be opening its doors again this Saturday.

Its chief executive, Greg McManus, said closing during lockdown had a major impact.

"We had gone to a very busy summer season to zero overnight, and that's been pretty devastating for us," he said.

"We had a lot of seasonal staff who we had to let go early, we paid them up to the end of their contracts to the end of April."

He is expecting far fewer people over the next few months, with about 60 percent of visitors to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds usually from overseas.

But he agreed there was a growing desire from people here to learn more about the country's past - and the grounds of the Treaty of Waitangi signing was the perfect place.

"There's a real interest in New Zealand's history and the history of the treaty and it's coming through from children."

Pania Tyson-Nathan said opening the border to Australia and the Pacific would help ease the financial strain on the Māori tourism sector.

But she said in the meantime Māori tourism businesses would continue to work hard to satisfy the domestic market.