For a small nation like New Zealand tourism is serious business, earning the economy a staggering $59 million per day and employing 185,000 people annually.
The Ministry of Tourism sees Maori tourism as a key component of the sector, and one that sets New Zealand apart from the rest of the world. Since the earliest days of Rotorua, Maori tourism has been an integral part of New Zealand’s tourism sector with kapa haka and marae visits high on every tourist’s bucket list.
But what sets Maori tourism apart from other sectors within the industry?
According to one Maori tour operator, Maori tourism gives visitors a holistic travel experience, unlike mainstream tours where visitors “turn up, take a photo and jump back on the bus”.
Mohio Tours owner Melissa Crockett, whose company offers Auckland day tours with an indigenous twist, says Maori tourism is about people, the land and the spiritual relationships that exist between these elements.
“It’s not one dimensional. It’s got different elements. There’s a spiritual perspective, a land perspective and then there’s us as tangata whenua, and our relationship to the land.”
The Auckland businesswoman says that giving travellers local stories from a Maori world view allows them to get a sense of the land and its history.
“We’re talking about the land as an ancestor that we’re descended from and how we’re tied to it through our stories. It gives them a much better understanding of our place in this land and who we are as a people and a nation.”
A four-hour drive north of Auckland another Maori tourism venture, Footprints of Waipoua, is impressing visitors with night time bush walks to Tane Mahuta, the largest known Kauri tree in New Zealand.
CEO Koro Carman says the desire to share stories is not only intrinsic but also a powerful tool to include people in the experience.
“We’re unique because we’re Maori and we incorporate stuff unique to our culture.
“When our manuhiri are walking through the Waipoua forest at night they’re stepping into a different world. Can you imagine sitting underneath Tane Mahuta at night, under a blanket of stars while the guide is doing a karakia and hearing the sound of kiwi calling in the background?”
In 2010 Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) identified the ‘Interactive Traveler’ as its primary target for international campaigns. The Interactive Traveler stays longer, spends more, uses a range of different accommodation options while exploring a wider variety of activities.
“Its an international trend in travelling and fortunately for Maori tourism, one that fits well,” says Melissa, “For the free independent traveller it’s more about getting in touch with the place and the people. They want to interact with locals and find out the best beaches to go to and where we go to chill out.”
Contrasting small to medium size businesses is the tourism powerhouse Rotorua, attracting over half of New Zealand’s international visitors with its geothermal landscape and cultural delights. At the centre is Tamaki Tours, New Zealand’s most awarded tourism company.
“You can’t put it in a bottle, you can’t sell it off a shelf and you can’t buy it anywhere else in the world. It’s absolutely our people, our land and the stories that we tell,” says Tamaki Tours marketing manager Nadine Toe Toe.
Nowadays Maori tourism is widely recognised by its peers as an important part of the industry says Nadine and she believes there is room for more operators to develop.
“Each region, each tribe have different stories to tell. It’s not about competing for the same slice of the pie, it’s about collectively working together creatively as a united force and thinking smartly about how we can grow the pie.”
For Mike Matata, tertiary lecturer of tourism and industry veteran, growing the pie means growing people to participate at all levels of the industry.
“Tourism is the single largest industry employer but in some areas there’s still a lack of professionalism.”
Mike highlights the return of assets to Maori as a major factor in boosting iwi tourism but says the hard work is in maintaining and developing these resources.
“Maori have more control over the outcomes and are now in a position to not just participate as employees but actually provide employment. Ultimately what this means is that we need more peoplei at all levels of the industry and that comes down to professional development.”
He says that although visitors are more sophisticated, unless they’re looking for a specific experience, they’re most likely to follow the well trodden tourist route.
Maori Tourism chairman Glen Katu agrees. He says Maori need to look at tapping into the stream of visitors earlier in the process. With 2.4million international visitors annually Glen sees transportation and inbound tour operations as key areas for Maori to target if they want to compete with dominant players in the market such as Tourism Holdings Limited, New Zealand’s largest tourism operator.
“Maori are big players in tourism. Although we don’t own the bus companies and in bound tour operations yet, that’ll change. We have to be directing the traffic. Until we do that we’re still beholden to those companies that bring visitors in.”
Tourism New Zealand says international visitors who experience Maori cultural products rate them much more favorably than products of other indigenous cultures elsewhere in the world.
But Nadine is mindful of not watering down the cultural experience too much.
“It’s about giving it the integrity it deserves while still being commercially sustainable.
“It’s not about duplicating stuff, it’s about finding our heroes and stories that we’re proud to share. That’s the kind of stuff they want to find out about.
“Visitor expectation has increased but it doesn’t have to be a saccharin sweet experience. We should be brave enough and proud enough to tell our real stories and the real history and the real truth.”
For Melissa and her Mohio Tours outfit the privilege lies in helping visitors see the meanings that can’t be expressed in advertising campaigns.
“Those who join us at the beginning of their trip say it opens their eyes and that it makes them more aware. And then we get some at the end of their trip who say ‘Oh I get it now!’
“So it helps them to make sense of the place and its culture and they see the value in that.”