Of course we all know the well-documented success of Wellington as a destination, but since that time there have been many other success stories in the industry.
When we started trying to coordinate a tourism industry in Wellington there were some grass roots problems. There was no retail to speak of in the weekend and if you wanted to park your car in the central city on a Saturday or Sunday you got stung with a significant parking fee.
A lifestyle, not a business
While the number of tourism operators was steadily growing, many of them were part-timers keeping their doors shut unless they had an inquiry, and there was no
indication they were even slightly interested in quality assurance.
Wellington was not alone with these issues. I remember participants at some of the early Tourism New Zealand regional seminars admitting they didn't have a website, nor some even an email address. "I run down the road to use my daughter's email if I need to," one budding accommodation operator once told me.
There were many who had taken up tourism as a retirement option. They looked confused when we talked about developing a marketing plan; some were even troubled at the concept of a business plan. The complexity of the international tourism distribution system was enough to send some running for the door. From a profile perspective those investing in media monitoring of tourism coverage would have felt shortchanged.
Fighting for profile
There was next to no news about tourism and it was never mentioned as a key earner by central government let alone in any central economic development plans. Regional politicians were a little quicker to spot the growing opportunity but they had a fight on their hands with their farming communities.
Ten years ago at Tourism New Zealand we made a commitment to getting tourism into the business pages of the media. We put a lot of time into encouraging, leading and, dare I say, slightly manipulating journalists into taking our business more seriously.
And collectively the industry started putting the same amount of effort into talking to politicians and showing them the opportunities tourism could offer them and their constituents. Tourism started popping up more and more in politicians' speeches and media releases. Then PM Helen Clark even took three days out of her schedule to be filmed for a Discovery Channel tourism programme.
How far we have come. Fifteen years later the country's top man runs our portfolio. Tourism is on the map as an economic development industry with huge potential.
How far we've come
We have a strong core of slick professional, technology-savvy tourism operators who increasingly understand the importance of quality assurance, and our retailers mostly open their doors on Sundays. We have a government that finally increased Tourism New Zealand's budget to a level where it can have a real impact in some markets and is able to put some money on the table to be a significant partner with the private sector.
Have we gone far enough? There is still enormous potential to communicate the value of tourism in New Zealand. I am sad to say that during my time (with Tourism New Zealand) we never managed to realise the vision of a tourism version of Country Calendar despite an enormous range of quirky and inspiring tourism stories.
Regional Tourism Organisations (RTOs) still have the annual battle of trying to maintain or grow their funding. National tourism organisations, along with our Minister, still have to keep pushing the importance of tourism to decision makers, including Cabinet and Treasury.
At the same time we still appear to be competing with, rather than working with, other industries. In the past few weeks there has been a raging debate about the effect decisions made in the dairy industry and discussions around mining might have on our industry.
I'm preaching to the converted when I say the tourism industry has had an enormous impact on New Zealand and its communities in the past 10-15 years. But there is much more we can do.
The Rugby World Cup will give us a unique opportunity to help New Zealanders understand the importance of tourism and how they can play a part in this industry - whether they formally get involved by becoming volunteers or informally just help tourists with directions and ideas of things to do.
The industry should be there to encourage the groundswell of interest in tourism and events there will be if (when) the Cup is a success.