Insight: No Vacancy - Can New Zealand Cope with Rapidly Growing Tourism?
The number of tourists heading to New Zealand is growing rapidly, but who's looking out for the locals and the landscapes they've come to see?
It seems everyone wants a piece of the beautiful Blue Spring, near Putaruru in South Waikato, 70 percent of the country's bottled water is drawn from there and in the past 10 years visitor numbers have jumped from 12,000 to 40,000.
In January alone, 8948 people made their way to the secluded spring to take a dip and watch its bright green underwater forest sway with the rapids.
But the spot where visitors enter the water to swim has developed a 'bald patch' and the underwater vegetation appears to have given up trying to attach itself to the fine silt on the bottom, after being trampled by thousands of feet all summer long.
In the tiny car park at the beginning of the Te Waihou walkway that leads to the spring, tensions with locals are made all too clear by a hotchpotch of hastily erected and often duplicated signs.
They warn against inconsiderate parking, car theft and littering, and clearly signal that aggravated locals are getting sick of being swamped by tourists.
The spring is no longer one of New Zealand's best kept secrets and South Waikato District Council chief executive Craig Hobbs said while the councils worked hard to get the district on the tourist map, he admitted its success had been a surprise.
"All of a sudden people have just cottoned on to it and we really aren't coping well, so you know, it is a lesson - when you do these things you have to have a plan in place."
The council had put in more toilets, and signage to encourage swimmers not to go in the water.
But he said it was playing catch-up and he was now working on a plan to make it sustainable and to ensure the district's surrounding towns were actually getting some benefit from having more tourists around.
In Putaruru, about a 10 minute drive from the Blue Spring, logging trucks and milk tankers hurtle down the main street.
The chairperson of the local iwi's Ngāti Raukawa Settlement Trust, Vanessa Eparaima explained the mostly agricultural area was just not set up for a rapid growth in tourism.
She said so far there was no evidence visitors to the Spring were spending up large in the district's towns and she was worried about what the environmental damage could do to the area's future tourism prospects.
"If you look into the future and there is little to no change over the management of the spring, all I can see is that the environment will be damaged, and economic development, what will that look like?"
"People will stop coming," she said.
In the next five years, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment forecast the amount tourists spent during visits would grow 65 percent to $16 billion.
And there will be a lot more of them. By 2022, 4.5 million tourists will be pulling their wheeled suitcases across the tarmac, roughly one tourist to every local.
The chief executive of conservation lobby group Environmental Defence Society, Gary Taylor, said now that tourism was such a big part of the economy, the government needed to start investing more in what he describes as New Zealand's "natural capital".
He believes that as the country's second biggest earner, tourism planning needs to be more "professionalised and considered".
"For a long time in New Zealand, we've taken a pioneering attitude to tourism, that it is just something that happens cause we're a nice place with few people and nice natural features."
He wants to see either a tax on tourists or a more user pays system in which tourists pay more to use Conservation department tracks and huts.
And he said the tourism industry would be selling the goose that laid the golden egg if it continued to ignore the impact rapidly growing tourism was having on the locals and the landscape.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts said such rapid success had not been expected.
In 2014, Tourism Industry Aotearoa, formerly known as The Tourism Industry Association, released its Tourism 2025 framework to address the problem of low growth and a declining share of the global tourism market.
Mr Roberts said a lot had changed since then.
"We're just getting caught out by the rate of growth, so some of the issues that are now hot topics weren't being talked about two years ago."
Mr Roberts said there had been almost 20 per cent more visitors in the past year and the industry was scrambling to sort out the problems that had cropped up.
"From our point of view these are great problems to have; I'd much rather be talking about 40 per cent growth in tourism than a flat sector like it had been for five years. And yes it creates issues, but also opportunities for us."
In the past month, Tourism Industry Aotearoa has updated its 2025 Tourism framework to acknowledge that increased tourism can crowd out locals and that the industry has to make sure it does what it can to keep the support of the public.