In Praise of Backpackers

20 Dec In Praise of Backpackers

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 21.12.20


Thirty years ago, when I was learning to do live comedy, my two friends and I would load up Margaret’s car on a Friday afternoon with wigs and props, and tootle round the corner to Kong’s, a backpackers hostel with a tiny bar in Queenstown. There would have been rehearsals during the week, squeezed in between Mike’s shifts as a restaurant dishwasher and my daytime gig on local radio, and Margaret’s other rehearsals with the bands she sang with all over town.

We called ourselves “Triple M Productions” which was a pretty fancy title for three mates who would sling together a stage made from old beer pallets we’d salvaged from the alley behind the bar, but we adopted a professional ethos long before any of us were being properly paid. We sold tickets, did songs and character sketches, and I began to have a crack at what would eventually be stand-up comedy once I let go of those wigs and props. I only remember snippets from our weekly shows which is probably just as well – the impression I would do on stage of one of Queenstown’s more colourful restaurateurs makes me blush now at its brazenness, but it was an audience favourite so it kept turning up on the set list.

You only get good at comedy by doing it, over and over. Fixing, refining, losing the bits followed by silence, building on the parts that deliver laughs. In a small town (which Queenstown was then) backpackers were an ideal audience, constantly refreshing themselves so that every Friday you had new ears for your revamped show.

Three decades later, pre-Covid, young visitors travelling on a budget continue to be a valuable audience for creative workers. Back when the borders were open, there were nights at our Auckland comedy club when a comic would ask “Where are you from, mate?” and discover the room was a veritable United Nations, filled with walk-ins from hostels on Queen Street. They gave you an opportunity to test how “international” your jokes might be; you gave them a taste of local culture delivered in the local accent, and a relatively cheap night out.

I’m not sure how you quantify the contribution backpackers make to our creative industries as an audience (though you could measure my gratitude especially in those early days as “heaps”) but you can calculate their contribution to our pre-Covid tourism earnings at around $1.5 billion a year. Sure, they spend less per day than their parents might, but they stay longer, pick fruit, wait tables, pay tax and do a lot of free marketing on social media. Some of them will come back in a couple of decades to eat at the restaurants they used to wash dishes at, and go Heli skiing from the luxury lodge they might have once cleaned. They are, in fiscal terms, an investment.

So it has been jarring to listen to many people, from the Tourism Minister to a nice lady from Golden Bay on my radio just now, talking about backpackers – at best, living on nothing but instant noodles and, at worst, doing unspeakable things on our lawns and in our waterways. The notion is that we should use this moment while our borders are closed to rethink who we might want as visitors, and redesign ourselves as a premium destination for high-value tourists only.

I’m all for re-invention, and for taking unique opportunities like this to reset how we do things – we’ve all been doing a bit of that this year. I’m also a fan of us making the most of what we have to offer – like, why sell raw wool when the real money is in high end wool products? And yes, maybe some of our tourism offerings have been a bit naff, relying on buses turning up with captive audiences to watch Barry shear an old ewe and sorry but the gift shop is closed on Mondays.

But the idea of turning our back on backpackers and focusing only on the wealthiest tourists once the borders reopen feels as un-Kiwi as, crikey, a black-tie barbecue. Visitors come here for our relaxed openness and lack of stuck-up-ness as much as our pristine-looking wilderness or 5-star hotels and boutique vineyards. Also, it seems weird to make our big selling point the kind of activity most of us can’t afford. Feels like inviting someone round for backyard pétanque when we’ve never actually played it ourselves.

Who we want here – and what we want to offer them – should be a reflection of the best of who we are, and what makes us special. And that’s guardians of our natural resources, and kind and generous hosts. If we focus on being those things, once the borders are open again, the right value visitors will come.