Recently reporter Brook Sabin opined about a New Zealand that he says has gone from being a nice little country off the beaten trail to being over touristed mecca that has lost or is in the process of losing its glory. His opinion piece for Stuff detailed a number of festering problem areas in New Zealand, which got me thinking about whether New Zealand is over touristed.
When I was doing Year 13 Geography at school, we had to look at an “economic process” as a class and were given the choice of one of the following: industrialization, tourism and a couple of others. At my school we did tourism. The tourism process focussed on two areas of interest – Queenstown and the Gold Coast. We examined the pull factors such as the mountains and scenery in Queenstown, and the beaches and warm climate on the Gold Coast.
One memory that stands out from the Queenstown segment of this study was being shown a progress chart for the foreseeable future. It showed Queenstown on an accelerating curve up to the end of the 20th Century (given that this was taught in 1999, I think it could be classified as foreseeable future). Once it passed the 20th century the chart showed continued acceleration for a few more years before breaking into four different potential directions. One suggested growth would just keep on going; a second suggested it would slow down, but not stop completely; a third suggested it was going to flatline indefinitely in the near future from physical limitations and the fourth suggested things would start to run in reverse before very long. I think in 2019, the second possibility is the current front runner followed by the third if we are not careful.
Queenstown has a number of major problems that are increasingly interconnected:
- It has used up nearly all of the flat land available to it and is now starting to put pressure on neighbouring places such as Wanaka. In turn Wanaka has gone from being a sleepy town that becomes active during holidays and every second year for the Warbirds over Wanaka airshow to effectively a dormitory suburb of Queenstown. The same goes for Arrowtown, a sleepy picturesque town known for its lovely autumn photography of deciduous trees shedding their leaves.
- The rapid growth has not been matched by infrastructure. Queenstown roads, water and sewerage networks are under increasing pressure to the point that Queenstown Lakes District Council recently applied for permission to discharge sewerage directly into Lake Wakatipu, which is half of the overall tourist attraction.
- Tourists, tourists, tourists. We need tourists to come and spend money and go home with great memories of a friendly nation, but many attendant problems such as freedom camping, dumping of waste and ignorance of protocol around tourist attractions.
It is not just Queenstown though, that is struggling. Whilst Queenstown has become in some respects a victim of its own success, there are many other tourist attractions as well where the numbers of tourists are reaching problematic levels. One such place is the Tongariro Crossing in the middle of Tongariro National Park/World Heritage Area. Day in day out in all weather, good and bad there is a steady line of tourists snaking across Mordor. Most come prepared and have an idea of what they are getting into, but some come thinking its just a couple hours walk and get stuck. With the tourists also come litter problems, people having to airlifted off because they ignored warnings about track conditions and so on.
Small locations like Franz Josef on the West Coast and Tekapo in inland Canterbury, where the permanent population is only a couple of hundred people struggle with over crowding. Franz Josef has the busiest helipad in New Zealand sending dozens of flights up to the glaciers each day almost from dawn until dusk. Down at the small airstrip near the Waiho River single and twin engined light aircraft are coming and going constantly flying over the glaciers and Mt Cook. Numerous tourist buses trundle through daily, plying the same route. Once a sleepy town at the foot of the Southern Alps, like Wanaka, it is no longer quiet unless the Waiho River has knocked out the bridge.
New Zealand prides itself on its environmental sustainability. Compared with many nations we are comparatively clean and green, but the notion we are 100% pure clean is so wrong, I have actually tried complaining about it being misleading advertising. We are most certainly not 100% pure and the faster that silly campaign ends the better. People coming to New Zealand expend significant carbon just getting here, never what they do once they have arrived. The waste that comes out of rental cars is considerable – food, tourist advertising, abandoned clothing items among other stuff which will fill a skip within a week.
I initially actually thought Mr Sabin was being a pessimist, but unfortunately there is more truth to his words than I think most of us New Zealanders want to admit.