Lobbying begins to win two new Great Walks economic bounty
Regions are lining up to get a piece of the financial windfall that will go with being chosen as the site of two new Great Walks.
Conservation Minister Maggie Barry is already being lobbied over the yet to be decided location of the two new walks she announced last week as part of a $76 million funding package to help the Department of Conservation (DOC) cope with growing tourist numbers.
"Some of my colleagues have been sidling up to me and saying 'boy have I got a great walk for you'," she said.
DOC director of recreation, tourism and heritage Gavin Walker said they were still drawing up a process for deciding where to build the two new Great Walks, but would consult communities, businesses and iwi partners.
Looking at commercial benefits might also be part of the mix and getting people out into different areas of the country was a priority.
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National Parks tourism consultant Dave Bamford said he understood areas around Lake Tarawera and Cape Reinga had been assessed for their potential as Great Walk sites.
In her announcement Barry said the $12.7m expansion of the Great Walks network would involve "co-funding" but the exact nature or extent of private funding was not spelt out.
However, it could take the form of commercially operated huts like those on the Milford and Routeburn Tracks, and Walker said the expectation was that the Government, communities and businesses would pool their resources
DOC is currently researching the economic impact of the nine existing Great Walks, and it's likely to be substantial.
They logged 117,685 people staying overnight on Great Walks in 2015/16 - up from 75,000 from five years earlier - and 60 per cent were international visitors.
Bamford estimates the 125,000 who completed the Tongariro Crossing last year generated at least $20m in spending.
With more than 30 transport operators charging $30 to $50 to take people to the start of the track, and most walkers staying at least one night in the area, that figure was probably conservative, he said.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it was more like $40 to $50m in direct spend.
"Five years ago there were 1500 people on peak days, last year it was 2850 …We never thought we'd see such growth out of the Tongariro Crossing."
Even remote Rakiura Track on Stewart Island attracted more than 6000 walkers the summer before last and Venture Southland tourism manager Warrick Low said their $240 average daily spend off the track was a big boost for the region.
Unlike other Great Walks such as the Milford Track, he said Rakiura was open in the winter which meant it brought tourists year round.
The Heaphy Track Great Walk is an economic lifeline for Heli Charter Karamea owners Julie and Wayne Pratt who ferry around trampers, mountain bikers, and track workers.
"DOC would be our bread and butter, but tourism would be a close second," said Julie Pratt.
DOC director of recreation, tourism and heritage Gavin Walker expects demand for the Great Walks to continue increasing and extending track huts or building new ones was not the way to cope with that, he said.
"The overwhelming feedback from users of these places is that they value experiencing nature on nature's terms without large numbers of people around them … developing two new Great Walks is considered the right approach."
A tenth Great Walk, the Pike29 Memorial Track named for the men killed in the Pike River mine, is already under construction and opens next year.
Like the Heaphy it will cater for both mountain bikers and walkers.
Karamea tourism operator Paul Murray said allowing cyclists between May and November brought an extra 2000 people to the track and helped "iron out" the winter trough.
"Yesterday's trampers are today's mountain bikers.
"There are a lot of people who do all the Great Walks in New Zealand, international trampers and also Kiwi families, it's a bucket list thing."
Murray said trampers tended to stay longer and spend more because mountain bikers - often well heeled professionals - were time poor.
"So they're likely to take a chopper to the other end of the track, ride to Karamea, get in their cars and go home.
"Whereas trampers generally spend three to four days on the track, and when they come off, they're looking for a hot shower, a cold beer, a hearty meal and a comfortable bed in that order."
Walker agreed cyclists increased "market appeal" but while greater off-season use undoubtedly benefited small communities, there were no plans to introduce biking on other Great Walks.
"They're through terrain that would require a heck of a lot of track realignment. Or they're such spectacular walking places in their own right, they are more or less at capacity with walkers, so adding bikers into the mix would probably create more complications."
- Sunday Star Times