7 Oct 2018

Protect and promote: Can DOC really do both?

From Insight, 7:50 am on 7 October 2018

New Zealand's conservation estate is feeling the pressure of the country's tourism boom. With unprecedented numbers of visitors wanting to visit our national parks and walking tracks, the department  is juggling access for visitors without sacrificing the environment. For Insight, Belinda McCammon visits several small communities in the path of the tourism boom to see what impact is it having on them.

Blues skies, snow clad mountains in the background and a DOC sign

A river, mountain views and free; this campsite overflows in the summer. Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

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On a mild day in September, the Ahuriri Campground on the outskirts of Omarama is empty, except for a middle-aged couple parked under the shade of a tree, enjoying a cup of tea.

In a few weeks though, this unassuming dry stretch of land, sitting alongside the busy Christchurch to Queenstown tourist route, will be transformed, as camper vans and vehicles park up for the night as the summer holiday season gets underway.

Tourists will wash their clothes and bath in the nearby river and enjoy the views of snow clad mountains. They will share the one toilet in the campground and, if locals are lucky, they'll deposit their rubbish in the one small bin provided. If there's room.   

The campground is not unlike many of those on the conservation estate, around the country. A DOC ranger will monitor the crowds and the rubbish, with a once weekly visit.

The vast majority of tourists are from overseas, and it costs them nothing to stay at the campground, but locals say it is the community that is paying for it.

Omarama public meeting re tourist pressure on local campsites

Omarama public meeting re tourist pressure on local campsites Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

Ann Patterson's family has lived in the region for five generations. She is the Omarama Residents Association chairperson and in the past year she has been speaking out over what she says is the poor management of the campground. You can hear her frustration in her voice.

She and others in the community forced DOC and the Waitaki District Council to acknowledge the problems with campground management in a recent town meeting,

It was a big turnout.  Locals are fed up.    

With another summer tourist season due to start in November, Ms Patterson believes the current situation at this campground can't hold.  

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Last year, 3.7 million tourists visited New Zealand and visitor numbers are projected to reach 5.1m by 2024. This means more pressure on conservation estate campgrounds like Ahuriri.

Ms Patterson describes the campsite and Omarama as just one of the many towns on the overloaded New Zealand tourist trail.  

Another photo opportunity on the way  into Milford Sound

Another photo opportunity on the way into Milford Sound Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

``It's the sheer numbers and it's the lack of consideration. I'm sure a lot of the people are genuine really good people but we can't let this carry on any longer. 

"It's just been getting worse from year to year to year and nothing happens. I guess we're trying to say, 'Enough's enough, tidy it up, administer it correctly.' ''

It's not just unfair on locals, but also the tourists, she says. The infrastructure is not there.

``Our little corner is being trashed. Collectively as these small communities, we've have to be vocal, get together and make the tourism industry understand the reasons why we don't want this to happen. 

Once again this comes back to the various departments, central government, tourist industry, DOC, the local district councils. They've all got to wake up and see what's happening."

Overflowing car parks in Aoraki/Mr Cook

Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park is another tourist hot spot, dealing with over flowing car parks and crowds in summer - not exactly the image most visitors are looking for.

Mary Hobbs and her husband Charlie are DOC concession operators, running the Old Mountaineers Cafe, in the national park.

If you come to Aoraki-Mt Cook looking for solitude, Ms Hobbs says your best bet is early. In summer, that's 6am.

Blue skies and snow capped mountain with cars at base

Tourists parked in Aoraki Mt Cook in spring, in summer it’s packed. Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

Last month, DOC released the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park Draft Management Plan. It's aim is to try to solve the crowd problems that Mt Cook village and the various car parks around the national park face.

One of the options being considered is a park and ride system, which would aim to take the bulk of the cars out of the village.

Driving around the national park, Ms Hobbs points out various car parks that tourists use, many of which are pretty busy for this time of the year. She questions whether a park and ride is the right solution for Mt Cook Village.

``A park and ride scheme might sound good on paper in a Wellington office. It might sound good for perhaps for a government keen on removing the village completely out of the park, but that horse has bolted. That might have been an option 50 years ago.''

Tourist crowding around a kea.

Tourist crowding around a kea. Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

Ms Hobbs wants DOC to rethink how it funds infrastructure for small communities like Mt Cook Village where tourists outnumber residents.

``There's a great angst building up. DOC is increasingly putting pressure on small businesses for more money but they're letting millions of overseas tourists come in here for free.''

The newly announced $35 border levy may change that, but she still thinks that DOC should have its own charge on national parks to reinvest in its own infrastructure.  

"No negative effects on nature."

Being over-run with tourists is not a problem in the remote Catlins, in the southeast corner of the South Island.  

If you visit this remote part of the country you may encounter Yellow Eyed Penguins, Hectors Dolphins, NZ sea lions and you'll definitely see the 170 million year old petrified forest.

On this day, the coast is stunning. The sky is a bright, brilliant blue and there is the cry of sea gulls wheeling overhead.

While lighthouse on coast edge with grassy stretch and path in front.

Remote Waipapa Point in the Catlins, where DOC hopes more visitors will visit to move pressure away from other conservation estate hotspots. Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

The South Catlins Charitable Trust, at Curio Bay, leases the reserve from the Southland District Council and over the past 16 years the team has worked with council and DOC to enhance and protect the area.

In July the trust opened a cafe and information centre at Curio Bay to cater with the growing number of visitors to the area.  DOC funded the public toilets attached to the building.

Since the trust was formed visitor numbers have increased from 30,000 a year to over 150,000 the bulk of which are in the summer.

The Catlins, and especially Curio Bay, is one of the areas that may see the effects of so-called "visitor dispersal" -  an attempt by DOC to get visitors away from hot spots like Aoraki-Mt Cook to lesser visited regions.

But by trying to solve one problem, overcrowding, DOC may end up creating another, by pushing visitors into areas that are not ready to handle the tourist numbers.  

The trust's chairperson, Paul Duffy, admits that's a challenge.

``That's why we are always working at ways trying to spread the visitor experience around a little wider than just here.

Paul Duffy, at Curio Bay, says the challenge is to make sure areas re ready for increased visitor numbers.

Paul Duffy at Curio Bay where he aims to balance Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

``The thing about the Catlins is, the attraction is the nature. So we've got to make sure we don't have negative effects on that nature, or we've lost the point completely.  

``Right through the coast there are various volunteers all working away in different ways to enhance little areas that have a visitor attraction but at the same time protect what's important about it.''

Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage says it is all about protecting biodiversity, but also to ensuring people have an enjoyable and quality visitor experience.

She believes to achieve that, DOC needs to be more strategic with it's visitor planning, including encouraging tourists away from already overcrowded popular destinations and into areas like the Catlins.

She says there needs to be more investment in alternative transport options.

``Tourism is our biggest export earner. A lot of tourists come to New Zealand attracted by our natural landscapes, they can contribute to the protection of those places and the species that call them home.

``It's about ensuring our ethos of manaakitanga, hospitality, and that New Zealanders enjoy having visitors and don't feel overwhelmed by them. So it's about better managing people and ensuring the appropriate infrastructure is in the more popular places."

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