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The tourism industry cannot be rebuilt on the backs of low paid workers, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has told the tourism industry.

In his opening address at the University of Otago Tourism Policy School conference late last month, addressing the theme of “Structural Change for Regenerative Tourism”, Mr Nash said the tourism industry could do things better, including paying more than the minimum wage.

He made encouraging points about the opportunities from border reopenings to Australia (April 12) and visa waiver countries (May 1).

He also recognised tourism businesses had “really done it tough” during two years of Covid-19 restrictions and reversed fortunes.

The industry needed to “make a concerted effort to live our brand . . . to consider how you present yourselves to visitors, the way you support your employees and . . . ways to strengthen your links to your communities and our wonderful environment,” he said.

Pre-Covid-19, tourism was New Zealand’s largest export industry, worth $40.9 billion.

Mr Nash outlined the billions of dollars of Government support doled out since 2020.

He warned a Tourism Industry Transformation (ITP) report due mid-year would contain some discomforting truths about poor employment practice.

“If we don’t make changes and allow the relatively small number of operators to continue poor employment practices, they will continue to drag down the reputation of the whole industry. That is not acceptable to me,” Mr Nash said.

Mr Nash acknowledged “this conversation may seem like it comes at a hard time [ but] a continued race to the bottom with low wages and poor conditions will not serve anyone well. Least of all workers.”

The industry had a chance to rebuild on a better model and the Government would support it to do that but individual businesses must challenge themselves by taking “real, meaningful actions to improve”, he said.

Visitors would have to pay their fair share too. He stressed New Zealand was after “high value visitors, as distinct from high net worth”.

“High value tourists” could be backpackers and people on a budget. It meant giving back more than taking, being environmentally conscious, off-setting carbon emissions,  respecting cultures, communities and values, and trying new experiences, he said.

During a question and answer session facilitated by Otago Business School independent director Craig Stobo, Mr Nash reiterated “it really does my head in when people say they only get paid the minimum wage . . .”.

“If it means putting prices up, so be it . . . Tourism cannot be rebuilt on the back of cheap labour,” he said.

Earlier in the conference, Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult said tourism operators were “the true heroes” who had “scrimped and saved”.

They were trying to build capital and it would take time for things to come together, he said

He had concerns whether enough workers could be found for the ski season.