Tourism New Zealand’s chief executive Kevin Bowler loves a challenge.
Two years ago when he was offered the job, he did not think twice about accepting.
“For me the challenge is how best we position New Zealand as a tourist destination,” Bowler tells China Daily Asia Weekly.
Australia still provides the bulk of New Zealand’s visitors — about 1.2 million a year — but tourism numbers are also booming with visitor arrivals from China up 19 percent and rising.
Distance is an issue but New Zealand plays up its strength — peace and tranquility in a natural landscape that is hard to match, the 48-year-old executive says.
Bowler’s background in marketing, advertising and telecommunications has been vital in his new role.
In 2007 he was headhunted to be inaugural chief executive for Yahoo!Xtra, a joint venture between Yahoo!7 and Telecom New Zealand.
Prior to Yahoo!Xtra he was with Telecom New Zealand where he was instrumental in reinvigorating the company’s mobile business.
Bowler says many of the skills he learnt have helped him in his role with Tourism New Zealand.
“For example, put the customer at the center of your decision-making and don’t assume you know what he is thinking,” he says.
“As a young product manager at Unilever, one of the products I worked on was Persil (a detergent). As a 23- or 24-year-old with no domestic skills, I learnt that I really needed to understand what the customer thought of the product.”
Bowler believes technology is the key to selling New Zealand.
“Our lives are being driven more and more by technology,” he says. “We connect through social media; we bank, shop and look at travel destinations online. We book flights and hotels online.”
Another factor which has impacted enormously on New Zealand as a travel destination is local filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson.
When his The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released about a decade ago, little did anyone imagine the impact it would have on tourism in New Zealand, where it was filmed.
Bowler is hoping Sir Peter can repeat his magic when the first of The Hobbit trilogy — The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — is released in December.
The Lord of the Rings was one of the most successful film series in history, and fans worldwide fell in love with the picturesque Middle-earth sets and the unbridled beauty of New Zealand’s natural scenery.
Hobbiton, the permanent film set used in The Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit, just outside the town of Matamata on the North Island, has become a major tourist attraction. Since it opened to the public in 2002, more than 240,000 people have visited it.
Tourism New Zealand has mounted a major marketing campaign with the slogan “100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand” to coincide with the film’s release.
“What we are saying in the campaign is that the fantasy of Middle-earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand,” Bowler says.
For cinema goers and fans of J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the tiny nation of 4.4 million became a natural magnet.
“Surveys we conducted (when the trilogy came out) found that around six percent of arrivals said they were drawn to New Zealand by the films, while one percent said the films were the main or only reason for their visit — equating to almost NZ$33 million ($35.66 million) in tourism expenditure,” Bowler says.
“Now if we could increase our visitor numbers by six percent through The Hobbit, that would be an extraordinary outcome. The Hobbit trilogy will provide a great opportunity to again promote the country and its unique beauty to a new set of travellers.”
When the first of The Lord of the Rings films, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released in 2001, it was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece. National Geographic said it was one of the best 10 movies ever made.
“The Fellowship and next year’s The Two Towers and The Return of the King are going to do for New Zealand what Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee did for Australia…,” National Geographic said.
“Travellers with lingering wariness about northern hemisphere routes will be itching to travel to the perceived safe haven of a ‘down under’ Middle-earth.”
Bowler believes Sir Peter’s films will work their magic once again for New Zealand’s tourism industry.
According to him, tourism is the country’s second-largest export earner. Last year, it contributed NZ$6.9 billion to the economy, about 3.8 percent of gross domestic product, which puts tourism second behind dairying in contribution to the economy.
Growth in tourism, Bowler says, has been in single-digit figures, fluctuating from low to high numbers but not reaching double digit. The matrix of the industry, however, has changed.
“When the global financial crisis was at its peak, we saw a lot of growth out of Australia and a reduction in long-haul arrivals (from Europe and the US),” he says. “The last three years we have seen a sharp increase in Asian long-haul arrivals, particularly from China.”
While Australia has traditionally been New Zealand’s biggest market and the US and Europe continue to be major markets, China is fast growing.
In 2011, total visitor arrival from China was 145,000, almost 19 percent up on the year before. In the first half of 2012, it was almost 99,000.
“In terms of arrivals, China is our fourth-largest market overall and will be number two within a year or two,” Bowler says.
Tourism authorities are now shifting their thinking from visitor arrivals, the accepted matrix people in the industry use, to the lengths of stay.
“In terms of stay days, Australia is number one, Britain two, followed by the US and Germany. China comes in at number seven, so we still have work to do to get our Chinese visitors to spend longer in New Zealand.”
Bowler says tourism from Asia, particularly China, growing steadily over the last six to seven years, accelerated in the last 12 months with direct air links.
“China Airlines began a direct daily service from Guangzhou to Auckland in April last year and this summer, increased the number to two a day,” he says.
“Air New Zealand has a daily service from Shanghai and we are hoping for a direct service from Beijing at the end of the year.”
New Zealand is not trying to be a mass destination for tourists, he says. Instead, it is seeking to attract people who are looking for a unique and invigorating experience.
“Many of our visitors from China, for example, come for the high-quality ‘rejuvenating’ experience where they can relax,” Bowler says.
“The real test for us is trying to get our Chinese visitors to return. The vast majority are one-time visitors. What we need to do is look at some of the activities that will entice visitors from China to come back.”
One major enticement is New Zealand’s magnificent golf courses, some of them associated with high-end luxury lodge properties.
“We need to combine this with our outdoor environment and deliver a great food and wine experience,” Bowler says. “But we need to get the mix right.”
Chief Executive, Tourism New Zealand
2010: Joins Tourism New Zealand as chief executive
2007-2009: Inaugural CEO for start-up Yahoo!Xtra, a joint venture between Yahoo!7 and Telecom New Zealand
2003-2007: Holds a number of leadership roles internationally and in New Zealand, including at Telecom New Zealand, where he heads marketing across all products for the consumer business
1985: Receives a Bachelor of Management Studies degree from University of Waikato, New Zealand
How often do you travel?
I probably spend 25 percent of my time travelling.
How do you relax?
I am a sport nut. I run twice a day and at home spend time on my bike — it is the best way of blowing off steam.
I have become a great convert to Kindle (and) download a lot of books onto that. At the moment I am reading a potboiler, The Perfect Assassin, by Ward Larsen. It is a great whodunit.