*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on September 14, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Colorado can learn a lot from New Zealand. True, New Zealand’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and Colorado’s continent-bound. New Zealand’s coastline is as jagged as our borders are ruler-straight. But Colorado and New Zealand have comparable economies and almost exactly the same amount of land (just over 100,000 square miles). So this state-to-country comparison makes sense.
New Zealand and Colorado share a problem. Both want tourists but not (necessarily) new neighbors. It appears those crazy Kiwis have a strategy for keeping it that way. It’s a subtle yet significant counter-tourist psychological operations campaign.
Like here, New Zealand’s economy relies on tourism. Visitors experience life in one of the world’s most desirable places. Immigration in ones and twos isn’t difficult to accommodate. It isn’t hard to make room for a few billionaire relocators like investor Peter Thiel and director James Cameron. But in 2018 when Gallup polled international respondents to where they would prefer to move, 9 million people wanted to join New Zealand’s roughly 5 million residents.
So how do you enjoy tourism’s financial benefits without getting swamped by hordes of settlers?
Having recently returned from an extended visit, I now feel qualified to identify the contours of a widespread passive-aggressive program designed to thread this needle. This hidden-in-plain-sight effort relies on social cues. These cues can appear warm and welcoming. But they’re really designed to dissuade would-be stayers. Collectively they’re a set of kindly microaggressions, and they’re everywhere you look while vacationing in New Zealand.
New Zealanders are informal. Very informal. It comes off initially as a breezy, happy-go-lucky, everyone’s-doing-great-down-here vibe. But once you get past the pleasantries, something’s not quite right. For example, Kiwis routinely go barefoot. Everywhere. In restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores. Yes, everywhere. I saw a barefooter traipse into a barber shop teeming with piles of hair. His toes submerged into some brown curlies, then reappeared reborn as Hobbit feet.
Somehow this excessively casual attitude extends to bathroom etiquette. We found out the uncomfortable, unlucky way. Trial-and-error taught us by trip’s end that unlocked doesn’t equal unoccupied in New Zealand.
While hiking we stayed in a rental near the beach with breathtaking views. (Somehow, everywhere in New Zealand is next to a pretty patch of sky blue water.) But then came the rental’s fine print: no shampoo, no conditioner, no body wash. Just hand soap. The owner warned us on check-in that a teenage son was to have a birthday party at the owner’s adjacent property. (It sounded more like a late night rave to us.) Before checking out, we were also expected to water the garden and plants.
New Zealand’s dangerous. The clues are everywhere, like the signs in the capitol city’s harbor that mark where the shoreline was before the last Big Earthquake. It’s not just natural events, like tsunamis, the scary stuff is built right into the brochures: volcano-visiting, bungee-jumping, jet-boating, dolphin-swimming. On this last trip I perused a flyer for something called “canyoning,” which all but assured interested parties that every day-trip included at least one human sacrifice to the tourism gods.
It’s brilliant. Danger-tourism blends excitement with non-trivial risk to life so that survivors feel lucky to have cheated death. And who wants to live permanently where they nearly died?
This unspoken (admittedly, perhaps non-existent) counter-tourist psy-ops campaign is ruthlessly effective at manufacturing one thought in each visitor’s mind: “I love it here, but could never stay.” Maybe that should replace their current tourism tagline: “100% Pure New Zealand.”
Of course, the only way it’s going to stay so pure is if New Zealand keeps the numbers down and the riff-raff out, so in that sense, I wish the ongoing campaign success. I can’t wait to go back next year.
Colorado Tourism Office, take note. This is how you do it. We in the Centennial State like our visitors like our outdoor ethical codes—leave no trace.