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Local government and tourism public policy: a case of the Hurunui District, New Zealand

Shone, Michael C.
Fields of Research
The promotion of the tourism sector as a means by which to achieve social and economic development objectives is well established, and is reflective of a broader movement internationally towards the active support of ‘sunrise’ industries in regional locations (e.g., Beer, Maude & Pritchard, 2003). The utilisation of the tourism sector for this purpose has become increasingly salient over the past two decades, particularly in rural or provincial areas, where the sector has been used by governments to help offset declining profitability in other sectors of regional economies. These declines are attributed most commonly in the academic literature to a change in public policy ideology influenced strongly by economic neoliberalism (e.g., Dredge, 2005; Mair, 2006). This thesis examines how and why local government utilises tourism development as a mechanism for fostering regional development. It does so by providing a theoretical perspective on the changing role of local government in regional tourism development under an evolving public policy paradigm. To achieve this, the thesis utilises a single case study of the Hurunui District, New Zealand. The rationale for selecting local government as the unit of investigation is that it is at the local level that the impacts of tourism are experienced most acutely. That is to say, in destination areas it is typically local government (i.e., territorial local authorities) which has the primary responsibility for the management of natural, cultural and built resources, the management of tourist behaviour, and also the promotion of destination area attractions and activities (e.g., funding for regional tourism promotional organisations, festivals, events). No other level of government in New Zealand has such a high level of direct and/or indirect institutional responsibility for the management and promotion of the tourism sector, and the management of destination areas and communities. This case study approach is framed within an interpretative social sciences methodological paradigm, and seeks to integrate a New Regionalism and Foucauldian perspective for the purposes of analysis. The primary research method employed in this thesis is a series of 35 semi-structured interviews with key informants from 19 agencies, organisations, and stakeholder groups associated with or impacted by tourism development in the case study location. These, in turn, are set against information collated from documents relating to the history of sectoral change and development in the Hurunui District, as well as an examination of the structures of tourism governance in the District. The Hurunui District is rural in character and has strong historical and economic connections with the agricultural sector. These agricultural connections have more recently been complemented by the growing prominence of the District’s emergent tourism sector. This recent addition to the economic palette of the area has been strongly championed by the territorial local authority with municipal responsibility for the case study area: the Hurunui District Council. This role of tourism ‘champion’ has been strengthened further by its position as owner-operator of the District’s premier tourism attraction: the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa (HSTPS). The findings of this research confirm the view of much of the international literature insofar as tourism is viewed (and used) as a mechanism to stimulate regional economies and offset the declining profitability of other sectors in rural locations. The use of tourism for this purpose has, in turn, led to a change in public sector roles and responsibilities for tourism at the local level as authorities attempt to stave off socio-economic hardship in regional locations. This has created a reconfiguration of public sector, private sector, and community relations in the sphere of tourism promotion, participation, and development. Sitting alongside this issue is the challenge for local government to manage the urgency of an underlying economic development imperative while also remaining a benevolent and impartial provider of public facilities and amenities. This appears to be a particularly contentious issue in the case study location, as the District Council is engaged in what is arguably an extended programme of municipal enterprise via the tourism industry. This has created a pluralism whereby the District Council is not only a promoter and benefactor of tourism development, and an arbiter and enforcer of District planning rules and the like, but is also a leading beneficiary of increased tourism activity in the District. This, in turn, has led to divergent and contested understandings about the appropriate role of local government in tourism development. Thus, the promotion of tourism development in the Hurunui District, while certainly beneficial with respect to ameliorating the immediate effects of regional decline, nonetheless reveals areas of potential fracture in Council–community relations.