He Tāngata: Stephen England-Hall, CEO of Tourism New Zealand

Elisabeth Easther talks to the CEO of Tourism New Zealand.

My dad was a chaplain in the Air Force and mum was a primary school teacher so we lived in various places around New Zealand. Thinking back, it was a very privileged upbringing. We had a great home environment, great schools and we had lots of time to hang out together as a family and enjoy whatever was going on around the places we lived in. We had access to rivers, horses and team sports at Ohakea, Whenuapai was all about imaginative play in trees and paddocks on bikes and skateboards. I reckon as a kid your perspective is largely driven by your immediate environment.

I didn’t travel abroad till I was in my early 20s and after a few trips to Australia, I followed my partner — now my wife — to the Netherlands where she’d gone to complete her law degree. That visit was about chasing the girl, rather than the exoticness of Amsterdam but I do remember thinking the place was nuts with bikes, trams, boats, canals, pedestrians all competing for space, and an endless supply of beer. I must credit my wife with giving me the travel bug. She’s always been a real explorer and she’s passed that on to me.

When we moved to the UK we both had incomes, we didn’t have children and we made it our mission to travel extensively because it’s so easy to hop on a plane and fly to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Scandinavia, Croatia or Egypt. The thing that stood out about Egypt was the sheer mass of people, the depth of history and the cultural artefacts that sit in their back garden. We even played a game of golf under the Pyramids of Giza.

You tee off away from them, then play back towards them with the Great Pyramid at the end of the 11th fairway — that was a surreal moment. Climbing 3000 steps to the top of Mt Sinai and watching the sunrise, that was mind-boggling too.

A group of about 10 of us were in Egypt over Christmas and New Year. We took a taxi to the Blue Mosque and decided to walk back to the hotel. Only we took a wrong turn and ended up in a part of Cairo that was not very welcoming to tourists. In fact, some tourists had recently been killed in Egypt and there were ongoing concerns for Westerners’ safety, but none of us were aware at the time. Some time into our walk, one of our group said, “I think we’re being followed.” Turns out we were being observed by police and they were radioing each other about us. Eventually they introduced themselves and said, “we’re following you, but only to make sure you’re OK”. We told our story to the tour guide and he was like, “you should not have been in that part of town”.

In Rome, there were all these little carts by the tourism sites selling cold drinks and ice creams and, when it starts to rain, they turn their carts around and start selling umbrellas. They take the circumstances and optimise a positive benefit from them. As a marketing guy, that really impressed me.

Before we returned to New Zealand we lived in Toronto and my favourite travel thing was regularly flying to New York up and down over Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario and seeing the seasons change. One week we’d be flying over green, then it’d be all oranges and reds, yellows and browns. The whole of New England and upstate New York bursts into colour in autumn, then the ground would all be covered in snow and Niagara Falls would freeze. Then there are the people. We kept meeting interesting people wherever we went.

Travel is an inherently human thing. We are driven to meet people and connect with them, to build bridges socially and culturally, to look for new stimuli and experiences. Last year, more than a billion people took an overseas holiday. One in 10 jobs on the planet are in tourism, it provides huge employment, and the workforce is distributed around the places people visit. Tourism is one of the few industries where employment isn’t centralised and people live where the experience happens.

New Zealand has so many unbelievable places to visit and I don’t think I fully appreciated that before I took this job. I thought I’d been to some amazing places but working for Tourism New Zealand and spending time with operators and organisations, you get exposed to parts of the country you didn’t know existed and that’s magic. It’s the nooks and crannies, whether you’re staying in a luxury lodge backing on to Mt Aspiring or a one-bedroom crib by the beach. These are uniquely Kiwi experiences where you’re connecting with the people and place you’re in, and that’s what makes travelling so special.

Further information: see tourismnewzealand.com

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