Espiner: We're killing tourism

Last updated 06:19 06/04/2014

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OPINION: New Zealand's longstanding reputation as a safe place to visit is fast being eroded by heartless, unthinking thugs.

Once, quite a long time ago, I found myself in Hokitika without the means to get home to Christchurch.

I wondered what would happen if I attempted to hitch-hike. So I stuck out my thumb and, within 30 seconds, a car skidded to a halt.

My saviour not only took me to Christchurch, but then to my suburb, and finally to my home itself, even insisting on taking me up the driveway. He then refused any payment and, with a cheery wave, drove off.

That began a decade-long love of hitch-hiking, both as a driver and a passenger. I'd pick up anyone thumbing a lift who didn't look too dodgy and never waited more than half an hour for a lift when standing on the side of a road.

Once, heading from Nelson to Picton to catch the ferry back to Wellington, my ride who was headed for Blenheim went many kilometres out of his way, missing a business appointment, to make sure I didn't miss the boat.

All my experiences with hitch- hiking were universally positive. I met some wonderful people and in return, tried to liven up their journey with some (I hoped) sparkling conversation.

I never tried to hitch-hike overseas, mostly because I thought it would be too dangerous. But New Zealand, I thought, was different. Wolf Creek-style events didn't happen here . . . did they?

Well, yes, it turns out they do. Take a look at www.touristkilled.com or www.virtualtourist.com, both of which promptly updated their register of worldwide attacks on tourists to include the recent violence meted out on the West Coast to two young female hitch-hikers, who are now in Christchurch Hospital.

Over Christmas we were sickened by the attack on two young Germans asleep in their tent near a Whakatane skate park. Last October, a French couple sleeping in a Napier car park were attacked and pistol-whipped.

In July, two tourists were assaulted and robbed in a hot pool near Rotorua and, in April, three English tourists sleeping in their car in Paihia were robbed at knifepoint.

The previous year, 2012, was equally horrible: Austrian tourists assaulted with a bottle in Palmerston North; a female tourist indecently assaulted in Taupo; another French couple assaulted and robbed while hitch-hiking from Mt Maunganui; and a Czech woman murdered while hitch-hiking to Timaru.

Granted, there are far more instances of grisly crimes committed against tourists in many other parts of the world than here. But that was our point of difference. We weren't like other parts of the world. That's why so many fresh-faced young travellers keep coming here. But you have to wonder for how much longer.

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It isn't just me who's worried the attacks are getting worse. The Tourism Industry Association has twice in the past two years issued reassurances to travellers that New Zealand remains a safe place to visit. You do that only when you're worried people don't believe it is.

Because when it comes to tourism, perception is reality. Tourism New Zealand knows this better than anyone. Its 100 Per Cent Pure New Zealand campaign, now in its 15th year, is arguably the most successful tourism marketing tool in recent history - despite the fact that it isn't true and never has been.

But enough people are prepared to believe we are clean and green - or at least, cleaner and greener than most other places - and so the slogan survives, despite occasional attacks from the likes of Britain's Daily Mail.

Arguably, New Zealand has never been intrinsically "safer" than any other Western country. It's just that our small population and distance from the rest of the world makes it appear so. And we've fooled ourselves, too. We continue to report, with great surprise, even minor muggings and assaults that would go unnoticed by media in most other countries.

In a way, it's rather touching. I'm pleased I live in a country that is still horrified when a visitor is attacked, and where offers of accommodation, food, money and transport are still made to victims. At least the majority of us still care.

But our 24/7 media, the advent of the internet and always-on smartphones and social media mean any attack on a tourist is instantly relayed back home. In 2009, the Netherlands issued an official travel warning about travel to New Zealand after a Dutch backpacker was forced to watch his girlfriend being raped while in Southland.

It's only a matter of time before Germany, or France, or China, or Britain, issue similar warnings. And given tourism is a $10 billion industry responsible for a fifth of our entire export earnings, this isn't something to be taken lightly.

So as far as I'm concerned, whoever assaulted the young female German and Japanese- Dutch hitch-hikers on the West Coast last week, leaving them traumatised and lying in hospital, is a thoughtless, heartless idiot.

And while I accept the law needs to apply equally to all of us - and that far more attacks are still carried out by New Zealanders on New Zealanders - I still wish a special place in hell upon those who assault our visitors.

They do far more than scar the lives of innocent people. They further sully our reputation as a pleasant, safe place to visit.

- Sunday Star Times

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