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Tourism can support Māori women but at this time of crisis there’s been a devastating impact

By Loren Heaphy

OPINION - I am a Māori woman, and I work in tourism. That’s suddenly become a lot rarer because of Covid-19 and I am angry about it.

Covid-19 has highlighted the inequalities of our service-based tourism industry, and the deep reliance on a low paid labour sector to deliver our 100% Pure New Zealand experience to visitors.

It has also highlighted the paid and social gender divide we continue to have in our country almost 126 years after women gained the vote.

I want to first acknowledge that I write from a place of privilege and recognise the advantages I have had given to me through my socio-economic status, education and looking Pākehā enough to qualify for that most awful of questions: “what percent Māori are you?”

So, I am not writing from a place where I can say I am speaking on behalf of my people, but I can tell you, I am heartbroken on their behalf.

Loren Heaphy

For Māori, and for women, hosting people often comes as part of our expected role in society.

We are taught to please from a young age, to help in the wharekai and to manaaki our manuhiri. At the same time, as women, many of the traditional roles we play – mother, carer, hostess, educator, are valued (and paid) far less than more masculine roles.

At its heart, travel and tourism relies heavily on human resource, small to medium sized enterprises, and the service sector.

It’s about people to people interactions, it’s about sharing and storytelling. This engagement with people and culture results in meaningful employment and the endurance of our unique cultural experiences.

But we must ask, at what price to our people?

Women tend to be overrepresented in employment in the tourism sector, and with sustainable business practices and development pathways in place, the heightened professionalism of the sector can reduce gender inequalities.

United Nations research shows women are three times more likely to open a tourism business than men, but that a tourism business owned by a woman is more likely to stay small and be focused on service delivery.

Stats NZ data shows Covid-19 has devastated tourism businesses across the board, but that the price of that devastation has been felt most where we can afford it least.

There were 4,000 fewer Māori women employed in tourism industries in the June 2020 quarter than a year ago (a 20.5 percent drop). The number of women working in tourism industries fell 8.4 percent – 11,300 fewer women in the June 2020 quarter compared with a year ago. This is the largest decrease for women in tourism industries since 2009 (when Stats NZ introduced new employment industry classifications).

In contrast the number of men employed in tourism incredibly increased by 1,500.

The Tourism Futures Taskforce is an independent public private partnership mandated to lead the reimagination of tourism.

It’s assumed this group will focus on the impact of tourism on the environment and gaining social licence to operate within communities.

But if we do not address the high reliance of tourism on a service sector which has been primarily formed by women, Māori and migrants working in lower wage roles, then we are not addressing the systemic inequities of this economy.

If there is one thing I could leave my wāhine peers with, it would be to tautoko their mahi and tell them I hope we can find a better way of providing them stable employment in the future. They are our taonga – the keepers of our babies, our stories and our history.

And I would ask the Tourism Futures Taskforce to commit in their kaupapa to ensuring we have a high-value tourism industry, with a workforce supported through a living wage and a commitment to professional development – with a clear goal to raise the value of service-based staff as more than just a commodity to be done away with in times of crisis.

If the catch cry of Covid-19 is “He waka eke noa” then we must truly ensure we are all in this waka together – no matter our gender or ethnicity. After all, He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tāngata he tāngata he tāngata – what is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, the people, the people.