19 Dec 2019

Complacency no option for NZ tourism

3:36 pm on 19 December 2019

New Zealand has been relatively immune to the protests about overtourism seen in European cities such as Barcelona and Venice in recent years, but we can no longer afford to be complacent about visitor growth and its impact, writes Regina Scheyvens.

Overtourism is now a serious problem in many popular tourist destinations. From Amsterdam to Dubrovnik there are concerns about crowded parks, pressure on public facilities, rising rents and noise pollution. These pressures have driven residents to march the streets of their towns and cities in anti-tourism protests.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report , Pristine, popular...imperilled? The environmental consequences of projected tourism growth, released yesterday (December 18) into the environmental consequences of projected tourism growth is therefore timely, considered and comprehensive.

The report identified pressure points such as visitor numbers, infrastructure development, biodiversity loss and degraded water.

And it signalled that we can no longer be complacent and that a business-as-usual approach to growing tourism will have devastating consequences for the natural environment; New Zealand’s major drawcard for visitors.

We need to view tourism in a holistic, integrated way. How does it align with broader national goals? How can tourism protect the environment while enhancing the wellbeing of New Zealanders working in the industry and those living in places that tourists visit in great numbers?

A useful approach is on taken by organisations such as Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), the Central Economic Development Agency and its Wellington regional equivalent, which aim to make Auckland, Manawatu and Wellington great places to live, work and visit.

Current government policies of geographical and seasonal dispersal of visitors are a useful step in the right direction.

In weighing up priorities, the wellbeing of our environmentally blessed but economically challenged regions, including Northland and Westland, should be prioritised. Using the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy to invest in these places, and the people living there, is critical.

While the report notes that domestic tourists have a big impact too, our carbon footprint is typically far smaller because we are not taking long-haul flights.

Kiwis also tend to travel to more places that are off the tourism map, and support locally-owned businesses like motels and camping grounds, providing enduring economic impact. 

A campaign to encourage more domestic tourism, like the iconic 1980s advertisement “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country”, could result in an increasing number of New Zealanders choosing to stay for holidays, rather than fly overseas. This would also cut down on our overall emissions.

Regina Scheyvens

Regina Scheyvens Photo: Supplied

The Department of Conservation needs more resources to re-design tourist-affected conservation areas. This could include providing better infrastructure in high-use, short-walk areas - boardwalks, to minimise environmental damage for example, and dispersing more adventurous tourists to lesser-used, but still well-serviced, locations.

Future tourism policy should be informed more deeply by Māori values.

A Māori tourism operator on the Whanganui River told me that he believes every boat taking tourists on that river - whose spiritual significance is now recognised through the river being granted the legal status of a person - should have a cultural guide.

They would inform tourists about the intertwined cultural, spiritual and natural elements of that unique environment and ensure respectful behaviours from visitors.

Quotas on visitor numbers will be needed to protect iconic sites and walks. Charging $20 per adult during the peak season to visit popular areas, and capping the number of visitors each day, could help mitigate the impact of tourism.  Any quota system must, however, secure access for New Zealanders – especially those on lower incomes.

We New Zealanders must have a sense we are all kaitiaki of our precious natural environment and that can only happen if everyone can learn about and enjoy New Zealand’s unique landscape.

Regina Scheyvens is professor of development studies at Massey University’s School of People, Environment and Planning.

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