A volcanic alpine landscape of dramatic contrasts – and queues 20-deep for the toilets. Breathtaking views of Lake Wanaka – just join the 40-minute line for your selfie. A rare opportunity to experience a dynamic glacial environment – shame about the half-hour wait for a car park.
The rapturous promotional descriptions of our tourist hotspots conspicuously omit the growing reality – unbridled tourism growth is causing overcrowding, risking damage to the precious places tourists come to experience, and to New Zealand’s reputation as a tourist destination.
And while the nation’s threatened species become ever more threatened, the de facto tourist department – aka the Conservation Department – is employing car park attendants and investing millions building toilets and tracks for tourists who pay nothing towards their upkeep.
Everyone agrees on the pressure points, reeling them off like a travel brochure – Cape Reinga, Cathedral Cove, the Tongariro Crossing, Aoraki/Mt Cook, Wanaka’s Roys Peak, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers and Milford Sound. And everyone agrees something needs to be done. But that’s about where the consensus ends.
Options vary from car park charges to a national tourism cap, with everything imaginable in between. Even DOC appears to be sending conflicting messages. Amid chaotic scenes at the Tongariro Crossing access roads in the 2016/17 season, DOC set up a Tongariro Alpine Crossing Governance Group of iwi, local businesses and conservation advocates to investigate managing overcrowding. But then in October 2017 it launched a new promotion of 14 short walks and five-day hikes. They included the Tongariro Crossing; Roys Peak – where there are now 40 minute queues for photos; and Mt Cook’s Hooker Valley, which saw a 35 per cent explosion in tourists over this past summer.
The accompanying press release said the 19 promoted walks had been assessed by DOC staff as “being able to accommodate increased visitors”. However, documents obtained under the Official Information Act raise concerns about the crossing’s track erosion, litter and human waste, and DOC rangers removing rock cairns and graffiti instead of maintaining tracks. The governance group considered a daily limit of 1200-1500 walkers, about half the number currently crossing the plateau on peak days.
“Socially, culturally and environmentally, current growth is a threat to this World Heritage walk,” one document noted.
TOURISM AT A CROSSROADS
January 5, 2017 was the final straw for the Tongariro Crossing. Photos show access roads turned into impassable car parks as a bad weather bottleneck of 2750 walkers converged on the alpine trek.
“I have never seen anything like last season,” Callum Harland says. “Last season was too much.”
A 46-year-old Tongariro local, Harland has been running his Discovery Lodge for 16 years. He’s watched the numbers grow 9 per cent a year for a decade, from 45,000 in 2005 to more than 130,000 last year.
It’s great for his track-access shuttle business, and as a competitive mountain runner he has no trouble finding other untouched areas. But the downside has been litter, the eyesore of more toilets, and road mayhem.
Director-General of Conservation Lou Sanson says including the crossing in the new day-hikes promotion was about trying to raise other day walks to the same level, rather than further promoting the crossing.
This past summer DOC instigated a new system, restricting parking at the Mangatepopo road end to four hours to force walkers to take shuttle buses to the start.
It was a way to both cut parking congestion and extract some contribution from walkers previously paying nothing for the track billed as New Zealand’s best day walk. And it’s not small fry – in the past five years DOC has spent $1.27m on capital upgrades, including new toilets, road resurfacing, track safety upgrades and volcanic risk mitigation. In the past season alone the track cost $800,000 to maintain.
Shuttle-bus businesses pay a $3.50 concession fee per passenger to DOC, but any gain under the new system is offset by DOC now paying $155,000 for parking management.
Everyone agrees the system is a vast improvement.
“The road is a road and it’s not a car park,” Tongariro Guided Walks owner Terry Blumhardt says.
Wellington’s Ignite Trust has taken school pupils on the crossing for the past three years. Before the car park restrictions, the bus driver had to park down the access road and walk for half an hour back to the track.
Trust co-ordinator Kevin Goldsbury says this year they drove to the start and found a park no problem. But it didn’t change congestion on the track itself, with a continuous snake of walkers, and toilet queues of 20 or 30 people. The stress of managing 25 kids in a stream of sometimes pushy tourists detracts from the experience, he says.
“You’ve got people who struggle in parts, and people who just want to power through it. That’s often where some of the tension would be.”
While Harland says fewer walkers complain of overcrowding than they did 10 years ago, because they know to expect it, Tongariro River Motel owner Ross Baker says his guests frequently return pissed off.
“They’re just in a queue the whole time looking at the person in front of them and they can’t pass because there’s a queue for miles. It’s dreadful.”
And inevitably, some have found a way to circumvent the system. Backpackers drop a carload at the track start and drive to the track end at Ketetahi to leave the car, so only one person pays for a shuttle. If the carpark is full, they park 1km down the road on the highway, opening their doors into traffic steaming along at 70kmh.
“The cars are literally on the white line. There were a couple of days where it was very very dangerous this summer,” Harland says.
Shuttle operators – against earlier promises – facilitate the work-around by offering a one-way service from Ketetahi back to the walk’s start.
The crossing is a microcosm of the challenges DOC faces in tourism hotspots around the country. They fall broadly into two categories: financial and overcrowding.
In 2015/16 DOC spent $143m on managing huts, campsites, tracks, car parks and information, but got back only $17m in concession fees from tourism operators and $16m in tourism charges such as hut and campground fees. The numbers simply don’t add up, and it’s only going to get worse as national park visitor numbers are predicted to double in six years.
Blumhardt reckons DOC should consider charging walkers, which could in turn help manage numbers.
“Growth is probably not going at a sustainable rate at the moment, and that’s a situation that tourism in New Zealand faces. And the big hard questions need to be asked, around sustainability, both economically and environmentally. Things need to an extent to be quantified in money and a price needs to be put on protection of the location and the experience. Very often if you protect the location you will end up protecting the experience.”
So is it time to put a price on tourism on the conservation estate?
Tourism adviser Dave Bamford says while most countries charge for national parks and nature tourism, New Zealand is increasingly becoming “a nice example of free entry – which no-one else is using”.
“And it’s not free, because there’s a huge cost on the environment and the communities.”
DOC has been investigating charging and tourist management options for more than two years. There’s general agreement a border levy is the easiest way to extract conservation and infrastructure contributions.
In May, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis signalled plans for a levy, but with no detail about how much would be charged, or how. Labour’s pre-election policy put the charge at $25.
Forest & Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell says the levy should be much higher – maybe hundreds of dollars – to put the brakes on the “mindless model” of high-growth, low-value tourism.
“We’re talking about doubling the number of tourists coming to New Zealand in less than a decade. It’s ridiculous.”
He argues the tourism industry is where the dairy industry was 20 years ago, pushing unbridled growth without managing the consequences. With 55 per cent of Otago residents now saying overseas tourists put too much pressure on New Zealand, despite it being the region’s economic lifeline, tourism risks losing public support, Hackwell says.
“The industry has got it wrong, they are absolutely at risk of killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg.”
Tourism Industry Aotearoa boss Chris Roberts rejects the allegation the industry is in denial. He regularly highlights the need for sustainability, and the industry launched a sustainability commitment programme last year.
However, that does not talk about curbing growth, and he admits their stated goal of chasing value rather than volume is difficult, as anyone can come here who can afford a plane ticket.
The industry is wary of a border levy, which could unfairly tax visitors coming for business or to see family who never enter conservation land. And Roberts does not accept that New Zealand has too many tourists, just that they are too concentrated in time and place. Instead, he wants to spread them out. But he does support an overhaul of DOC’s charging mechanisms, to help cover costs.
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage rates tourism pressures on conservation land as an 8 out of 10 problem. Nowhere is yet at crisis point, but the hotspots are bad. She was at Franz Josef at Christmas, when there was a half-hour wait for a car park.
But she doesn’t think New Zealand has too many tourists. They just need to contribute more to infrastructure and be better managed and better dispersed, by promoting lesser-known attractions in less-visited areas.
“I think it’s a case of not spreading the load.”
SPREADING THE HURT
Charlie Hobbs is just back from two heli-hiking trips on the Tasman Glacier – wedding photos with a lovely Chinese couple, and lunch at Plateau Hut with a private charter.
A Mt Cook veteran of 35 years, Hobbs has seen a bombardment of tourists to the tiny alpine village. Walkers on the Hooker Valley day walk increased 35 per cent this summer alone.
Hobbs runs Old Mountaineers Cafe and a guiding business, so tourists pay his wages. But there’s good, happy busy, and then there’s crazy ridiculous busy. And many valley walkers bypass the village, so contribute nothing to the community.
But words like dispersal strike fear into his heart. Sending people elsewhere is not the answer, Hobbs says.
“There’s other walks around here that are really amazing and we don’t want to have hordes of people going there, because it will ruin the whole concept of what people come here for.”
Hackwell describes the strategy as “spreading the hurt”. Sanson also acknowledges the risk of diverting tourists into other areas precious to New Zealanders.
“It’s a fine balance between where you develop for the plus-million-dollar tourism market and those valued backcountry resources that New Zealanders grow up in, and love those wide open spaces.”
It’s also difficult to change behaviour. Callum Harland has tried for years to promote the Round the Mountain track as an alternative to the Tongariro Crossing.
“I haven’t put one single person on that track, no matter how much I talk it up.”
Hobbs favours instead charging to fund better infrastructure – no-one would quibble with a national park fee, which is standard worldwide. With only one entry point to Mt Cook, you could have a toll gate to levy international tourists, while Kiwis could enter for free.
Across the Lindis Pass, Mt Aspiring Station owner Randall Aspinall reckons growing tourist numbers are exerting too much pressure. Walkers cross his land to access Rob Roy glacier and Aspiring Hut. At present, the crowds, excrement and toilet paper are a nuisance. Too much more and they’ll become a big problem. Nearby Roys Peak, which is so crowded walkers queue for photos, is near crisis point. DOC needs better facilities, and should consider national park or day walk fees to pay for them, he says.
“If we’re going to have to put in more infrastructure to handle visitor numbers, then those visitors should be paying for it, not the taxpayer.”
But that would require a law change, as conservation and national parks legislation rules out charging for access. Sage says that would be a serious departure from tradition and this Government has no plans to revise the law.
The work-around DOC is considering is charging for car parks.
PARK AND PAY
At Punakaiki over summer, cars lined the highway from Pancake Rocks to the village.
Documents show car park charges have been considered for both Punakaiki and Franz Josef Glacier. A $10 charge at Franz Josef could raise $1.2m a year, one document notes.
Patrick Volk, who runs Pancake Rocks Cafe, a backpackers and Tasman Sea Retreat at Punakaiki, says there’s no question they need more car parks and toilets. But charging for car parking is “really stupid”.
“People will feel ripped off. People would understand if they would walk the Pancake Rocks that they would have to pay $5 or $10 to do the walk, because then they understand it goes to the maintenance of it. What people don’t understand is that you have to pay and get ripped off with car parking.
“We are suffering at the moment. There is nothing left on the coast except tourism. If we muck it up, then we have a huge problem.”
Legislation preventing DOC from charging for walks is not an excuse, Volk says. Just change the law.
Federated Mountain Clubs also opposes car park charges on conservation land, and questions whether it’s even legal.
Sage says the idea feels like a slippery slope, and any money raised would have to come back to DOC. She’d rather there was more imaginative thinking about how tourists get to places like Franz Josef and Milford Sound.
At Milford, congestion could be eased by spreading tourists across the day, by encouraging people to stay in Te Anau, instead of everyone bussing from Queenstown and disgorging on to cruises at midday.
A park-and-ride system has been introduced at Cathedral Cove, but Hahei residents say their quiet peaceful village is still being turned into a car park. With up to 8000 cars a day, “the numbers we’ve got coming have just gone out of all proportion to our ability to deal with it”, says local Bill Stead.
They built a new car park for 180 cars – at Christmas they squeezed in 320 and that will need expansion to 500 to accommodate growth. Another local, Gilbert Bannan, chimes in: “We can’t just say we’ll build an extra car park and put another toilet in, because people just keep coming.”
The most likely option to extract a fairer contribution from tourists – after a border levy – is differential pricing. That means charging tourists more for the one thing DOC can legally put a price on – overnight stays.
DOC has been considering this for more than two years and Sage is expected to make an announcement today. Even the Great Walks cost $2m more than they bring in, something Sage wants changed.
DOC is also likely to add up to 116 more warden-managed camps and huts to the electronic booking system it uses for Great Walks, allowing it to both manage numbers and ensure walkers actually pay.
Charging international visitors more is common around the world, based on the justification locals already contribute via taxes. But it does foster resentment.
Waitangi National Trust decided in 2014 to charge New Zealanders $25 and overseas tourists $50 to enter the Treaty Grounds. Business development manager Tania Burt says they do get angry backlash – sometimes to the extent tourists walk away – but it’s not enough to undermine the financial benefits.
PUT A LID ON IT
While extracting more dollars from tourists will help fund desperately needed infrastructure, it won’t solve overcrowding.
Federated Mountain Clubs president Peter Wilson argues current growth is not sustainable – “There’s a limit to what we can physically have, and there’s a limit to what people accept.”
We need limits to protect sensitive land, just as we have limits to protect fresh water, he says. And that means limits on flights into conservation land and more walks managed through a booking system like the Great Walks. Even a national limit on tourist numbers, as in Bhutan.
Daily limits have been mooted for places like the Tongariro Crossing. Roberts thinks a booking system to manage congestion on day walks is a good idea. The problem is how would you enforce it.
Daily limits are not without precedent – Kāpiti Island has one. Sanson says such tools are still possible but in the meantime the department is focusing on improving facilities at frontline tourist attractions and working with councils and other sectors to be more strategic about tourism management.
The department is also battling the Instagram effect – you can invest thousands in new toilets, only to find a single Instagram photo suddenly drives crowds to a completely new location. That’s what happened with Wanaka’s Roys Peak, Sanson says.
Hahei’s Bill Stead says we need to at least think about how many tourists is too many.
“We need to start that conversation. Because at Cathedral Cove we don’t have walkers just coming down the normal way; there’s a water taxi which carries about 800 people a day, then there’s all these tour boats operating out of Whitianga over Christmas and they all trundle round the marine reserve. It’s just important that we don’t kill the golden goose, because people come to New Zealand for the pristine beauty.”