OPINION: I’m no millennial but nonetheless, I’m a huge fan of smashed avocado on toast. Avocado truly is a wonder food and I eagerly await avocado season each year. This is a bit of development for me since, nearly 30 years ago I had an unfortunate incident with a few avocados and a couple of bottles of vodka and it’s taken me a quarter of a century to be able to even look at an avo without getting flashbacks.

Ill-advised forays into vodka-fuelled debauchery aside, I’ve been thinking of avocados in the past few weeks as my wife and I have spent a couple of weeks on holiday in the Queenstown Lakes area. Despite living only a few hours north of Queenstown, I’ve never really explored the region. I’m not a skier and hence the annual migration to the ski fields of The Remarkables, Coronet Peak and Cardrona haven’t been on my dance card.

It’s been a fascinating time and we’ve been taking the opportunity to drive around the multitudinous subdivisions and lifestyle developments around the district as well as climbing on foot and taking in the topography and the intensive development that one gets a view of from altitude.

All of this exposure to The Lakes district has got me thinking about New Zealand and its tendency to dive head-first into particular sectors seeing them as the answer to all its economic and other problems. Over my lifetime I’ve seen this happen with residential property, widespread sharemarket investing, avocados, residential property (again), kiwifruit, residential property (yet again!) and tourism.

The wider Queenstown area is particularly interesting because it is a perfect case study of what happens when two of these panic-fuelled investment cycles combine. For the last decade or so, we’ve seen steadily increasing tourist numbers and many suggestions that tourism was the risk-free way to deliver economic growth to New Zealand. All we needed to do was to bring another few hundred thousand Europeans and Americans a year to our shores, bus them to Queenstown and chuck them in a jet boat on the Shotover, attach them to a bungee cord over the Kawerau, or enclose them in a Gondola up Ben Lomond. Hey presto – we’d be rolling in the lucre!

Of course, there were a few lone voices that suggested we’d actually get a bunch of young Israelis and Euros who, rather than paying AJ Hackett, Shotover Jet or The Gondola, would instead free camp along our rivers and at our beaches, throw their rubbish all over the place and defecate wherever they saw fit. As far as I can see, our only answer to this suggested niggle was to appoint officious elderly gentlemen to drive around to popular freedom camping spots at night threatening to fine people if they remained camping. Oh and we also created an opportunity for a bustling market of counterfeit “self-contained camper” stickers. But I digress.

While we were selling this tourism dream, we also decided we needed somewhere for all those people to sleep. Which is where the property thing came in. Attracted to a seemingly endless stream of tourists of various different budgets (who could have foreseen a global pandemic lasting years, huh?) we went helter-skelter subdividing as much land as possible around Queenstown. Frankton now looks like a city planner’s worst nightmare with huge big-box retail and hotel developments surrounding an airport that looks like it has erupted, boil-like, in the middle of a town.

And Queenstown itself is a nightmare – traffic, every second shop another agency hawking tourist experiences (and most of them shuttered since Covid) and a distinct inability to actually walk on the footpath because of the throngs outside Fergburger. Head a few kilometres out of town and you’re confronted by vast gated communities full of multi-million dollar homes that are generally only used a few weeks of the year. Indeed, perhaps our most infamous tourist, Kim Dotcom, lives in one of these gated communities and recently delighted in showing all his Instagram followers that when you’re a fugitive under an extradition cloud, the best way to react is to blow $15 million on a flash pad near Glenorchy and order pizza for the kids, delivered (of course) by helicopter.

But what really brought the lack of planning home for me was having a think about all those hotel cleaners, baristas and wait staff who work in the multitudinous establishments serving tourists in Queenstown. Where do these people live? When even tiny shoeboxes with none of the mountain views and all of the suburban sprawl in the region go for $1m-plus, the reality is that the people who make tourist experiences possible can’t actually afford to live there. Meanwhile, all the huge tracts of land get carved up for more top-end developments, and individuals like Mr Dotcom buy up large blocks on which to build palatial mansions and count their ill-gotten gains.

Meanwhile, “middle New Zealand” (and middle New Zealand is rapidly disappearing as neo-liberalism makes the rich-richer, the poor-poorer and those in the middle slide on downwards) has no hope of being able to do what their parents and grandparents did: to buy a bit of dirt and knock up a modest family bach.

And then Covid hits and, while house prices stay high, Queenstown becomes a ghost town as tourism and hospitality businesses grind to a halt – finally suffering the fate that was always on hand. If it wasn’t a global pandemic, it would have been social changes due to concerns around climate change that impacted tourist numbers.

Of course, it’s easy to look back with hindsight and say it was all so obvious. Just like it’s easy to say, looking back, that maybe there isn’t an insatiable desire to buy our avocados, or our kiwifruit, or whatever. But I think the issue here is that we tend to look for simple and singular answers to our economic ills, rather than doing what every good financial adviser always suggests: diversifying. Sure, tourism is important to New Zealand, but let’s not suggest it is the solution for everything. In the same way that software startups, biotechnology and the manuka honey industry are all important contributors, they’re not the single solution. Alas, there is no single solution.

The key is to be diversified and balance our various GDP-generating activities. Balance is always good, right?

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He’s well aware that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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