Tourist Traps

Our tourism industry – and New Zealand’s biggest export earner – is essentially based around our conservation estate. With funding cuts to DOC, a potential Chinese influx, tunnelling, damming, mining, commercial partnerships and rising fuel prices, Kathy Ombler asks what the future holds for tourism and conservation. 

Burgeoning tourist numbers once alarmed conservationists since our national parks and conservation treasures are the big draw cards.

And conservation was an anathema to many tourism operators. “We’d show you those [endangered] nesting waders over there, but bloody DOC won’t let us near them,” said the driver/tour guide passing a RAMSAR wetland site 15 years ago.

We’ve moved on.

Fiordland tourism pioneer Les Hutchins once said that conservation is the cornerstone of New Zealand’s tourism industry. Others caught on. Tourism companies began doing conservation work – stoat trapping, tree planting, kiwi hatching, fundraising for conservation projects, educating, advocating.

Just marketing ploys, said the cynics. So what? Tourism companies today, big and small, are involved in so many conservation programmes it has to be making a difference.

Our nature tourism companies have also become world class, educational and intelligent, says Dave Bamford of TRC Tourism, international consultant on sustainable tourism development.

He names tourism ventures based around Kaikoura, the sub-Antarctic Islands, Kapiti Island and Hokianga’s tiny Footprints Waipoua as examples.

Wildlife parks have evolved. Take Rainbow Springs, and the outstanding conservation success of Kiwi Encounter where, to date, more than 1000 kiwi eggs from the wild have been hatched and young kiwi nurtured.

Even the park’s massive new ride, the Big Splash, presents an educational “eco tour” using modern technology to tell the story of New Zealand’s ecological evolution.

The guardians of our natural heritage today are the people running nature tourism operations out there, says Gerry McSweeney, Forest & Bird Conservation

Ambassador and owner of Wilderness Lodges. “Instead of the public servant you have the Catlins Wildlife Trekkers, the White Heron Sanctuaries, the Okarito Nature Tours, the Real Journeys and more, who are mostly supporting conservation work. The government has gone into a facilitator’s role, testing the limits of non-compliance.”

It seems we’ve moved on again, or is that back?

Department of Conservation funds have been slashed and protection measures revoked to foster commercial development. There’s government talk of mines, a dam and a tunnel, and “commercial partnerships” with tourism companies. The symbiotic relationship between tourism and conservation is now not only recognised, it has become more important than ever. Where will it lead?

The economy is clouding this government’s view about the conservation estate and it’s a short-term view, says Mark Hanger, nature tourism operator for the past 27 years and Forest & Bird Executive member.

“Tourism companies are putting back into conservation but whether the management of our conservation estate and national treasures should rely on that is a different matter. There are huge benefits for the tourism industry to be engaged in conservation partnership but it has to be very carefully managed. They have to be partnerships without compromise. That’s the difficulty we have.”

The dilemma is that individuals in DOC see the tourism industry as a means to get out of the core role of advocacy, adds Bamford. “I’m talking about the example of moving out of education and dropping summer programmes for New Zealanders on holiday.

That’s an incredibly backward step if you want young New Zealanders to learn and understand the benefits of conservation and outdoor recreation. Tourism companies will only pick up the high volume or value part of that.

“There is also the dilemma of confusing issues such as development impacts of tourism (and on tourism) such as the Dart tunnel, compared with low-impact, sustainable nature tourism products.”

The Dart tunnel proposal fosters the myth that all travel to Piopiotahi/Milford Sound must begin and end at Queenstown, our holy grail of tourism that pays huge homage to fuel-thirsty jet boats, helicopters and coaches.

It’s the full bling, says Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell, yet the jet boats and helicopters rely on our lakes, mountains and clean green New Zealand branding to attract their visitors.

“The future is going to be very different. It’s not going to be about pumping people in and out of Milford Sound, not 30 buses parked at a waterfall running their diesel engines waiting for their passengers to take their photos. People are going to pay more to get here so they are going to look for a high-value experience, to see our natural species in a good environment.”

Slowing down is a positive trend, says McSweeney. “The one-night stay is becoming three. People are coming [to our lodges] for walking and kayaking, not to pass through overnight. Just as the slow food movement has transformed a lot of dining styles, I see ‘slow travel’ as recapturing past traditions of engaging with people and places you visit. It is a lot more demanding, and interactive, than filling a jet boat or helicopter and buzzing them around.”

He says this growing niche includes whole families catching up in their busy lives. Happily, it seems the trend also applies to Chinese tourists, the current darlings of marketing arm Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) and more known for coach tours and shopping. Last year 145,000 Chinese visited New Zealand, 25,000 more than in 2007. However their holiday stay averaged just 6.1 days, compared with that of longer-haul markets Germany (44 days), United Kingdom (27 days) and United States (14.6 days).

Nevertheless, an increasing number of travellers from China are self-organised and slowing down, says Dr Wolfgang Art, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. “New Chinese tourists are arriving in more diverse locations and staying longer than just a snapshot. They are more likely to add special-interest sights and activities to their itineraries.”

Bamford agrees, and sees Asian markets per se as increasingly interested in nature tourism and wildlife. “Wildlife tours are growing in Asia and this will overflow to New Zealand. Nature tourism packaged to meet the needs of Asian markets is a definite growth area. They want to see wildlife in a controlled and managed environment without any adventure focus, which helps lessen environmental impacts. They don’t want a free for all spotting penguins on an Otago beach.”

Northland Conservation Board member and Dive! Tutukaka’s Jeroen Jongejans see a huge future in marine tourism. In 1980, Jongejans received death threats from fishermen when he advocated for creation of the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, and he’s been advocating for marine protection ever since. He believes the dreadful track record in the way the oceans have been treated has created an appetite to turn things around.

“We are fortunate in New Zealand we haven’t stuffed it up completely, so we have the opportunity for economic and environmental benefits to go hand in hand. With new legislation imminent regarding the set up of marine reserves I can see a huge focus on the marine environment.

Greater interaction, understanding and participation will help us educate our visitors. The biodiversity of the oceans, the huge variety in product offerings and the employment of a lot of people in this sector, to provide world-class interpretation and service, will further enhance and sustain a healthy tourism industry in New Zealand.”

Rodney Russ, of Heritage Expeditions, is similarly optimistic. He foresees a traveller reaction against the predictable, risk-adverse experiences of the big consortiums now controlling expedition cruising, which he says seek profits first and pay lip service to conservation.

“Travellers want to push boundaries, they want experiences that sensitise them and they want meaningful messages. It is an invitation to be innovative and [accordingly] new business opportunities have emerged.”

The Sub-Antarctic Islands World Heritage Site is a perfect platform for thoughtful conservation messages about the importance of terrestrial/oceanic interrelationships, he says. “We talk about and promote marine protected areas now whereas a few years ago we didn’t even dare believe we could protect significant areas of our oceans.”

Russ is also positive about the future of private/public partnerships. “We are receiving some exciting overtures with a shared vision of [conservation] outcomes, which include research, management and advocacy. We have come of age and are finally being taken seriously as a partner.”

Back on land, the advent of big tourism consortiums also preys on McSweeney’s mind. “Whether it’s cruise ships or campervan companies, the big players are getting bigger.

The future of tourism and conservation is about the little communities getting benefits, the communities who savem their forests, it’s the environmental pay-off for not being able to log anymore.”

Bamford is more relaxed. “I think we will see the continuation of responsible large players at one end, for example Real Journeys and Explore New Zealand, and at the other we’ll see mergers and acquisitions of smaller operators. Nature tourism and national park tourism will continue to be strongly New Zealand owned. We will see mergers but it will be locals who see and understand the opportunities, not international investors.”

In any case, it could all be academic. Take a longer, say, 20-year view, and the cost of carbon and getting people to New Zealand will be an issue, says Hackwell. “It’s amazing how absent in action the tourism industry has been on this, though it’s been good to see Air New Zealand at the forefront of investigating biofuels. Of all the countries that need to be sustainable it’s New Zealand.

“It’s going to be about branding and that’s not going to be about zipping around in jet boats. It will be getting here on bio-fuels and seeing a really sustainable country.”

Geoff Gabites, of small group walking and cycling tour company Adventure South, sees our future visitors coming from Australia and the Pacific Rim. “The price of fuel will continue to grow and eventually very long haul travel will decline, unless we find alternative fuel.”

Susan Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University and Lincoln University, thinks we have our collective head in the sand. “Oil prices are increasing and not only tourism but the whole economy depends on cheap oil. If oil prices increase, economies all around the world suffer, and this is exactly the environment that’s not conducive to tourism, let along long-distance travel.”

Becken is stunned the government is showing no concern about peak oil when some experts predict we have a window of 10 years at most to radically change.

“What surprises me is the political debate on carbon taxes and the absence of discussion on our dependence on oil. Decarbonising tourism is the answer to both. Renewable energy sources, smart transport networks and rethinking of our markets are our future options.

“What about attracting people for a three or six month stay, for example, a sabbatical? We should also acknowledge that (and allocate resources for) domestic tourism will be critical and will increasingly become the bread and butter of the industry,” she says.

- Read a letter in response to this article