The clean green scene at backpacker hostels: environmental
responsibility or market niche?
Department of Sociology
University of Auckland
Current trends in the tourism industry include growing market demands for ‘green’
and sustainable tourism. This research investigated the programmes towards sustainability at twenty New Zealand backpackers, all of which advertise their clean, green practices in their internet advertising.
This study considered their owner/managers’ relative level of environmental
awareness across the following categories:
- Operating practices
- Use of the environment in their marketing
- Response to ‘clean and green and ‘PURE’ imagery for promotion of New Zealand
- Their role in green promotion of New Zealand
Is ‘sustainability’ a buzzword for promotion in the new century, addressing a particular market niche; or is it an actual set of practices? Does the term ‘clean and green’ refer to a responsible attitude to the environment; or is it now generalised to
refer to the presence of the natural environment (mountains, lakes, beach, bush), rather than to efforts towards conservation?
‘Keep New Zealand clean; other people might want to use it.’
Sign in a Rotorua back packer hostel
This is a summary of a small empirical study of backpacker hostels in New Zealand. Twenty backpacker hostels were visited over the summer of 2001/2, in Rotorua, Coromandel, Nelson/Takaka, Hamner Springs, Akaroa. Those selected had all advertised their hostels on the www as environmentally friendly, clean, green or in
other terms that implied these values. The owners or managers of each were interviewed. Their anonymity was a condition of the interviews.
The goals were
; to see how their actual practice matched or fulfilled the agendas implicit in
; What ‘clean and green’ meant to them
; Their responses to clean and green and ‘Pure’ as images for New Zealand.
; What they saw as their own role in green promotion of New Zealand
As the world’s fastest growing industry tourism is increasingly challenged about issues of sustainability and compatibility with environmental protection and community development. For many tourists to New Zealand, the experience of the environment is a central part of the tourist’s purchase. For many tourism
entrepreneurs, the environment plays a large part in the commercial image making processes. Eco-tourism is very much a ‘buzz word’ of the tourism industry, and may be defined as follows: ‘purposeful travel to natural areas to understand tee cultural and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make conservation of the natural resources beneficial to local people’ (Ecotourism Society, 2000). Inherent in this are the following values: tourism within nature, while appreciating nature, and guarding sustainability. At the same time, tourists make an impact on the physical assets and resources of an area, both natural and human formed, including its environmental, social and economic structures.’
Accommodation is a significant sector of the tourist industry. In this study backpacker hostels are the focus. Well known for their inexpensive accommodation, these operators might seem modest players in the overall revenue generated by tourism, but as one of the hostel owners in this study pointed out, the availability of this accommodation benefits other sectors of the economy.
‘The people who stay at my hostel just want the cheapest accommodation.
We get them here; then they spend their money in the local shops, and with
the local businesses. What we get is just a small fraction of what they spent.
The shops down the road sit back creaming it.’
There is an internationally acknowledged link between tourism and environmental issues. Yet tourism depends on culturally constructed images, and the tourist industry relies on the creation of myths and fantasies about places and people. Under contemporary conditions of globalisation, claims of green tourism are one strand in competitive international myth-making for tourists. My research explores the ideological aspects of branding in tourism, and seeks to analyse a powerful political and cultural phenomenon. The interest in promotion of New Zealand is not focussed on the impact of tourism in economic terms or in visitor numbers; but specifically on the ways in which images created for tourism are accepted by tourism entrepreneurs and citizens.
In New Zealand revenue from tourism constitutes a serious part of GNP. Morgan and Pritchard suggest that New Zealand competes with about ninety other destinations for just 30% of the global tourist market. The target markets are primarily Australia, U.K., USA, German, Japan, China and Taiwan (Morgan and Pritchard, 2002;11-12). New Zealand promotes itself to the world largely on the basis of its claims of a clean, green and beautiful environment. The current slogan for national promotion overseas is ‘100% Pure New Zealand’, the campaign starting in July 1999, with new images and taglines added during seasonal promotions. The website cleverly invites visitors to its images onto friends as postcards (http://www.purenz.com/). A concurrent campaign draws mileage from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, repositioning New
Zealand as Middle Earth. The focal point is environmental features, which are also a central strand in national identity constructs. More prosaically, tourism may be seen as a form of showmanship. What have we got in New Zealand to show off? Nature!
Tourism promotion is a product of overt expression of culture, consciously produced. Clean and green: the term suggests a land with little or no industrial pollution, no problems of over population or traffic congestion, quiet, peaceful, no urban decay: an absence of environmental problems. The term ‘clean and green’ is part of everyday discourse: in today’s New Zealand Herald (as I write this) there are two headlines in
Section 1 that use the term ‘clean and green’. It implies an environmentally sensitive population, in a setting with variations of scenic beauty: wilderness, deserted beaches, lush farmland. It is exactly what we need to say about ourselves to attract tourists.
When we assert our distinctiveness by promoting uniqueness through nature, we recapitulate the centrality of nature in the formulation of national identity. Landscape as a metaphor of identity naturalises the nation state, and renders it as indisputable and timeless, despite the relatively recent and controversial historic origin of the nation (Hayrynen, 1994:2). Nature underpins the idea of the nation state as an organic entity. The local visitor to one of the natural icons of their own country is a participant in the drama of nation. The site visited will be extremely familiar before the visit (from representations of it); but in this realization, a further connection is made with fellow nationals who are complicit in the construction of ‘ownership’ of the site (Bell and Lyall, 2002). Like New Zealanders themselves, tourists submit to a process of acquiring concepts of New Zealand's natural environment.
The ‘clean green’ slogan, and ‘100% Pure’ campaign: these are ‘our’ commercial responses to globalisation. These are a conceptual organization of the landscape in reflection of self-image, claiming distinction and superiority in the international contest for attention.
The appeal of nature in tourism is that the commercial enterprise does not detract from the supposedly egalitarian role of nature, which masks actual inequalities in social life. It is in the interests of the state to do this: to repeat the ‘shared’ notion of national space. The message is that anybody can enjoy nature, regardless of age, ethnicity, or language. Nature offers something for everyone.
In New Zealand national and cultural identity are implicitly tied up with the beginnings of nineteenth century tourism. For the English tourist, there was strong link between the fashionable subjects of literature, poetry and painting and sites that later became tourist attractions, such as picturesque or sublime landscape (Smith, 1992; Bell and Lyall, 2002). It is important to remember New Zealand's inheritance and uptake of these European cultural and intellectual positions. At the time of pakeha settlement of New Zealand, these European traditions were well established in popular culture, and were therefore automatically imported as ways of seeing and appreciating the landscape here.
If we look at early New Zealand artistic depictions of particular sites, for instance Mitre Peak at Milford Sound, South Island and the Pink and White Terraces at Rotorua, North Island, we can see that these sites became the attractions visited by tourists. Simultaneously, they became part of New Zealand iconography of cultural and national identity, and featured on some of the world’s first pictorial postage stamps, issued in 1898 (Lyall, 2003). With photography playing a significant part in early promotion of New Zealand, postcards became mobile advertisements for selected versions of national identity. Maori maidens were often featured against the grand backdrops: the exotic other to intrigue the viewers. Postcards also commonly featured transport and hotels, in an attempt to assure travellers of convenience and civilisation here, and that this was a progressive place.
Thomas Cook Company brought tours here from the 1880s, for the adventure of going somewhere so very distant, remote and beautiful. A major attraction was the thermal sublime: the Pink and White Terraces were claimed as the Eighth Natural Wonder of the World. The Terraces were destroyed by the 1886 Tarawera eruption; but the geothermal features of the area continued to be developed as attractions, in particular aiming at the luxury balneology and spa trade. In 1901 a Department of Tourism and Health Resorts was established, the first in the world. New Zealand was governmentally authored as a ‘scenic wonderland’. We can see in this the place of
tourism as a political agent to promote and reinforce colonisation: tourism as a facilitator of the selection of places in which to rapidly develop infrastructure and commercial centres. The class based interests of those groups involved in tis branding directed the representation of the New Zealand landscape (Ateljevic and Doorne, 2002).
Building on the old scenic wonderland myth, the clean green myth and 100% PURE campaign are appealing, innocent, and apparently apolitical. Their images are projected outwards to an international audience, including potential immigrants and tourists, all of whom must be persuaded that what they will find in New Zealand will fulfil their lifestyle and emotional needs. The images are also projected inwardly, to citizens. In an era of intense urbanisation globally, and when the natural environment is constantly under threat, whatever else is happening in the nation or internationally, the beauty of mountains, lakes, forests and farmland provides constancy and continuity.
Environmental responsibility or market niche?
The survey of backpacker hostels recognises that when it comes to delivering the green myth, a large part of this is delegated to tourism entrepreneurs and service operators. The myths have been fed out into the world. The visitor comes to see; the hostel operator is one part of the machinery that earns its keep through fulfilling those visitor expectations.
A. Environmental responsibility
This study showed that when to came to ‘environmental responsibility’ then most of these establishments, in their domestic ‘green’ practices, had limited commitment to match practice to image.
Some findings from the interviews:
1. Environmental Policies:
; Only one hostel had a written environmental policy: a YHA hostel, where the policy
was provided by the parent organisation.
; Of the remainder, 9 said they had ‘unwritten’ policies transmitted to staff and guests
; The remainder (50%, or ten hostels) had no policy
2. ‘Environmentally aware’
; In the interviews all but one (19 of the 20) said they considered they were an
‘environmentally aware’ hostel.
; The meaning of this term was vague.
3. Beneficial to business?
; 5 out of the 20 said there had been no benefit to their business through being
environmentally aware; 15 said there was.
; A total of 6 considered their business would benefit if they were more
; This was seen to increase their competitive advantage, as environmental issues
became recognised as a key element in marketing of hostels.
4. Main reasons stated for current environmental practices: cost effectiveness (18).
5. Changes they would like?
; Two specified changes they would like to implement:
(one wanted more environmental practices, a written policy, and composting;
the other wanted the local council to run a better recycling system).
6.The main reasons stated for not increasing environmental performance were cost.
; 18 said this eg some wanted solar heating but found installation costs prohibitive;
one wanted a self composting toilet but the quoted $5000 installation cost was prohibitive).
; Two cited lack of local back up by council stymied increased environmental performance.
7. Guests’ attitudes to hostel’s conservation efforts:
; 19 said that guests ask about recycling / expect this / positive about recycling: 19.
; Only one said that guests do not like recycling systems.
The researchers found that only two of the hostels lived up to what they implied in their ‘environmentally friendly’ promotion material.
The researchers checked
; signs around the hostel advising guests of eco practices
; dual toilet flushing systems
; laundry hot and cold water use
; frequency of sheet washing sheets washed after each guest ie not daily
; conservation re water in bathrooms (water quantity contols)
; clothes dryers v air drying
; recycling bins and instructions to recycle
; smoking / non smoking
Two hostel operators reported cultural differences between guests, noting arguments between Europeans and Asian tourists regarding fresh air and open windows.
13 of the operators pointed out that conservation practices were in their interests, as these were also money-saving activities for the hostel eg saving hot water.
Only two of the operators had in place arrangements consistent with systematically good conservation practices, according to the Environmental Consciousness Index developed by Zimmerman (Zimmerman, 2000).
B. Market niche
Four major conclusions:
- The use of ‘eco friendly,’ ‘clean and green’ and other such terms in advertising were
used to attract clients to the operators’ accommodation.
- The use of these terms did not necessarily accurately reflect actual conservation practices at their hostel.
- Reference to the ‘environment’ or ‘eco’ or ‘clean and green’ drew from popular promotional images of New Zealand.
- Primarily, these terms referred to the hostel’s proximity to particular natural attractions.
Subscribing to the Promotion Material
In branding of nations, ‘brand states’ replace geographic places, providing emotional
resonances amongst a global audience of consumers (Oram, 2001). Go to the ‘100%
Pure’ website, and be enticed by romantic versions of New Zealand as a holiday destination. From their 2002 website: ‘cushioned in a pillow of blue Pacific Ocean,
New Zealand is a feeling as much as it is a country. Freedom, excitement, escape, peace, amazement and joy are the kinds of emotions you will find here.’ Copywriters have reprocessed over a century’s worth of clichés, and tacked them onto fabulous
This study shows that the tourism entrepreneurs interviewed certainly subscribed to the promotional myths. Indeed, this was the overwhelming find of this study. When they commented on their response to this as an image for New Zealand, all of them considered it as a good or very good image.
‘The Pure campaign looks great and promotes our point of difference.’
Some (6 of the 20) qualified this by pointing out that this was a true representation of New Zealand, relative to other countries. 5 said that with more support and hard work, then it could be true.
‘It could be appropriate but we have to work harder to earn it’
16 said they were happy with the present campaigns. Only 2 – both from Nelson-
thought them exaggerated or misleading. One backpacker operator pointed out that
‘We can’t have GE and 1080 and be PURE as well. The PURE message is exaggerated and misleading.’
‘we need to become as PURE as they say we are.’
Those last comments convey an uneasiness. While subscribing to the myths for market advantage, these operators can see that the messages might be exaggerated or misleading. For some, the implied environmental standards were growing harder to match in their own establishments; not easier. A genuinely green entrepreneur trying to line up with best practice was undermined by the slippage between the green-wash
and the greening.
New Zealand the Brand
At present Middle-Earth is being utilised as a promotion device; with some success, according to recent figures comparing New Zealand’s increase in tourists now out stripping Australia’s. Middle Earth reinvents an Anglo-centric New Zealand, with
Tolkein’s Shire sitting comfortably on New Zealand pastoral landscape, developed in the 1800s according to traditional English agricultural practices.
The www advertising includes the following:
Ford of Bruinen - Misty Mountains - Fangorn Forest
Itinerary (5 Days) Start Mt Cook / Finish Queenstown After 5 days following Frodo's footsteps - you'll be ready for a pint of stout in the Prancing Pony! Includes: Glenorchy, Mt Cook, Omarama, Queenstown, Te Anau, Twizel, and Wanaka.
Hobbiton - Mordor - River Anduin Itinerary (4
Days) Start Auckland / Finish Wellington An itinerary that will take you from the peacefulness of the Shire to the depths of Mount Doom and beyond! Includes: Auckland, Cambridge, Hamilton, National Park, Rotorua, Taupo, Turangi, and Wellington.
Chetwood Forest - Dimrill Dale Itinerary (3 Days) Start Nelson / Finish Nelson Get your walking shoes on for this itinerary, it includes film locations on Takaka Hill, Mt Olympus and Mt Owen. Includes: Marahau, Motueka, Nelson, and Takaka.
Edoras Itinerary (2 Days) Start Christchurch / Finish Christchurch Arm yourselves with binoculars and cameras to
capture the Chetwood Forest - Dimrill Dale
Itinerary (3 Days) Start Nelson / Finish Nelson
Includes: Marahau, Motueka, Nelson, and
Branding is a way of promoting popular myths. Roland Barthes in Mythologies wrote
of 'myths' as systems of communication, with their own semiology system, containing meanings, concepts and signs. To develop a nation-state, recognisable symbols (meanings, concepts, signs) need to be constructed to imply unity; the symbols everyone recognises are developed to stand for the 'whole'. The use of Middle Earth imagery is a more literal imposition of a famous fantasy upon the landscape, for commercial purposes. The voluntary uptake in those locations which choose to subscribe to Peter Jackson’s temporary evocations of Tolkein’s landscape is in part driven by the commercial viability of Middle-Earth tours. It is also a convergence of the nostalgia for the imported British pastoral Arcadia, one of pakeha New Zealand’s foundation myths (Fairburn, 1989; Bell, 1996). Rhetorical question: why wouldn’t a
New Zealand rural community subscribe to this?
New Zealanders recognise and share this symbolism. The landscape and 'New Zealand' have long merged in a nationalistic identification. In the case of ‘clean and
green,’ we have been told it often enough to believe it. ‘Clean and green’ and ‘Pure’ have become formulae that offer succinct summaries of ourselves. Now the same landscape features are pressed into service to stand for the pastoral gentility of Hobbiton, the rolling grasslands of Rhoan; the majestic kauri forests are not now Gondwanaland, but Fangorn Forest; the stark and forbidding landscape of Mordor is mapped onto the Volcanic Plateau. Local pride in the achievements of film director Peter Jackson, and the pleasure of recognising local sites in his films, make Middle -Earth a highly acceptable strand to add to national promotion campaigns. Middle -Earth, as amplified with Jackson’s extraordinarily high production values, lines up
nicely beside Scenic Wonderland, clean and green, 100% PURE, and the brooding presence of sublime landscape in such films as Vigil and The Piano.
Ideological aspects of branding
Most material on branding refers to the marketing impact of various strategies, with limited attention to sociological implications. In tourism marketing, ‘brand’ represents a unique permutation of product characteristics and added values. Banding has been described as ‘the most powerful marketing weapon available to contemporary destination marketers… it has become the basis for survival within a globally competitive marketplace.’ (Morgan, Pritchard and Price, 2002;11). Each brand strives to dominate a unique market niche. As Anholt explains, ‘the idea that countries behave like brands is now fairly familiar to most marketers, and to many economists and politicians, too…its values are… fairly well understood’ (Anholt, 2002;43).
To date, the ideological aspects of branding have received relatively little attention, meaning that we have an incomplete analysis of a powerful political and cultural process (Morgan and Pritchard 1998:142). The branding of tourism products needs to be analysed not just in relation to the prevailing economic wisdom, but also as a political process with social outcomes. The expression and meaning of promotional imagery and messages are constructed and mediated within the wider ideological context.
In New Zealand nature has now been repositioned as a consumer item; a quality product, to be trusted. We see ‘commitment, corroboration and synergy’ among the
main purveyors of the country’s image in the global media (Anholt, 2002;43). The awe and wonder of nature has been massaged into a prescribed and marketable sentimentality. Entrepreneurs construct an economically viable ‘tourist space’ within
the nation, particularly designated to facilitate these forms of consumption. The location can be milked for even more dollars if constructed as an adventure or extreme sports site. The claimed uniqueness is now the particular constructed landscape in which commercially profitable activities take place, and the unique activities themselves; not the truly unique bio-diversity of that actual place. The moral, ecological and political impacts of adopting this mindset can be readily critiqued.
New Zealand as Middle Earth expands the consumer potential of New Zealand’s natural environment. As Jutel explains, ‘New Zealand as Middle Earth actualises the construction of the landscape in a range of ways… True to the spirit of the blockbuster, the mythic journey
has translated into the embrace of consumer culture. To navigate the cartography of Middle-Earth, a number of commercial projects offer both entry points and guide books, all available for a price…. As these promotional campaigns and feature articles demonstrate, it is New
Zealand as film set which is valued as a tourist destination, through the space of Middle Earth: a mixture of the actual and the imaginary’ (Jutel, 2004; 61-62).
The Middle Earth promotions sit happily alongside the 100% PURE New Zealand and clean and green campaigns. While aware they are consuming a showcased version of nation, the tourist consumer wants enchantment (co-opt a few famous wizards!), novelty, and contrast with home: that is what has been paid for. To serve the tourists’
gaze and activity-needs a profitable hyper-sublime is created: a space that is
effectively an indigene-free, ecology-free resort, overlaid onto the terrain of the fragile natural environment; and now with Hobbits and Orcs.
In New Zealand, the processes of both incidentally and deliberately marketing landscape have helped energise identity, while the landscape is being economically rationalised. We need tourists to continue to enjoy our country for the qualities of its environment, to tell others, who will come here too, and spend more tourist dollars. Twenty first century technology ensures that they tell this story with more authority, to a greater audience, and faster than ever before. In short, branding New Zealand as ‘100% Pure’ and as Middle Earth are attempt to accelerate the commercial progress of the nation. At the same time, these stories contribute to the meta-text of the narrative of nation, within which Middle earth may well be a chapter.
Tourism entrepreneurs are brokers of versions of nature where the by-products are the reification of landscape and nature’s abstract values, which can become commodities. This process is in turn validated by the weight of officially sanctioned mediators of that landscape, for instance the Ministry of Tourism and the Departments of Conservation and the Environment. When tourists want something extremely remote, extreme and adventurous on their itinerary, local entrepreneurs are not just complicit. They actively manufacture these experiences, then offer them as exceptional because of their placement in this particular grand and unique landscape.
We must look at the deconstruction of this image-making process: how tourism imagery works not just for economic interests; but how tourism itself constructs ‘places’, in the interests of particular sectors of society. This is inevitably a political process, that encodes and affirms the dominant ideology of tourist culture, travel capitalism. The clean green myth and 100% PURE are such encodings. the terms ae used as short cuts to describing New Zealand; ‘clean and green’ is a term often used as a descriptor by New Zealand travellers away from home, even when their own experiences are based on the built environment in cities, and may well contradict such a descriptor; and even though they know that under the Treaty of Waitangi, land is a contested issue in New Zealand.
As globalisation increases in this new century, assertion and celebration of national identity becomes ever more desperate. The choice to co-opt landscape in this way reveals much about New Zealand culture. The simple phrases ‘clean and green’ and ‘100% PURE’ over-ride, in casual discourse, issues of land contestation and
environmental protection. These terms divert us from unpicking attitudes to environmental damage in favour of supporting commercial interests and green-washing.
‘We are all local and so can tell them about the non-tourist places to go. This
keeps the magic going.’ Hostel Manager, Rotorua.
Ecotourism has the potential to facilitate change in environmental beliefs and practises. Price writes of the scope, via ecotourism, to foster ‘environmental literacy’ in the face of widespread acceptance of environmental degradation as a by-product of economic progress: an inherent part of Western ideology. This he sees as ‘a major obstacle to