Pure conflict

16:00, Nov 13 2009
CLASH: Tourism hotspot Rotorua is under pressure to champion the country's 100% Pure brand, with its 16 lakes suffering various degrees of pollution from lakeside agriculture and human activity.

The Rotorua legend tells of love-struck Maori princess Hinemoa swimming from the shores of Lake Rotorua to Mokoia Island where young Tutanekai, her forbidden love, played the flute to the night sky, thinking of her.

"You'd think twice about doing that now," says Bryan Hughes, chief executive of Rotorua tourism operator Waiora Group.

The traditional home of tourism in New Zealand, Rotorua is under pressure to champion the country's 100% Pure brand, with its 16 lakes suffering various degrees of pollution from lakeside agriculture and human activity.

The eutrophication, or nutrient buildup, in waterways and lakes verging on farmland is a major issue for Rotorua, as it is for many farm-fringe watercourses throughout New Zealand.

Mr Hughes looks at the greeny brown colour of the lake and remembers swimming in it when he was a young boy. Matching the story of Hinemoa's romantic swim to the modern reality is becoming harder to do.

"When you have a lake that is right on the doorstep of one of your major destinations that is not in good health, it has an impact," he says.


"People ask what the green stuff is. They start to question the 100% Pure brand."

New Zealand's high moral ground on the clean green issue suffered a scathing rebuke from Britain's Guardian newspaper yesterday, in which the agriculture sector was pitched as a central contributor to a massive carbon emissions footprint striving to hide behind the country's branding, described as commercial greenwash.

Dairy farming is New Zealand's golden goose, earning $9.9 billion in exports for the year to March.

Tourism is not far behind, on $9.3b. It slipped off the top foreign-exchange earner spot this year for the first time since 2001.

The green rolling pastures that form so much of the picturesque countryside have been fingered as a main contributor to the fouling of lakes and rivers. Heavy fertilising, increasingly intensive faming and poor environmental management have contributed to the problem, and it is not invisible to tourists. At Lake Rotorua's main outflow, the Kaituna River, countless rafting trips a year shoot over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the southern hemisphere. Rafting guides say the tourists do not notice the difference, because they are there for only a day.

Several kilometres up the road from where the rafts put in, the diversion wall steers the murky overflow directly into the Kaituna, valiantly shielding Lake Rotoiti, which is recovering to a shade of blue compared with its sister lake.

But if you spend nine hours a day waist deep in rivers with your international clients, it is harder to pretend there is no problem.

A rough estimate puts the freshwater fishing industry's earning capacity easily into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that is only counting international anglers, who regularly pay up to $1000 a day for top guiding and fat trout.

South of Nelson, one of the region's numerous fishing guides is giving up on one river after another as bad farming fouls what were once sparkling trout havens.

"Just the other day a client said how beautiful it was on a remote river, and how nice it was not to smell the cow (dung). People do notice it," says a source, who wants to remain anonymous for fear of a backlash.

He says the economics of dairying encourage farmers to focus on maximising returns from every piece of pasture, with little regard for the waterways that crisscross their land.

"Most dairy farmers just think about cows and money. They don't want to look at the longevity of the land or the waterways.

"It definitely limits the number of rivers you can fish. It concentrates the pressure on the fishery in certain rivers. That makes fishing harder, your clients don't meet their expectations and perhaps they don't come back."

On the flipside, farming is as integral a part of the tourism landscape as it is of the national economy. Federated Farmers dairy spokesman Lachlan McKenzie believes tourism is a natural follow-on from farming, with many farmers hosting tourists and earning tourist dollars on their properties through homestays, cafes, tours, whitewater rafting and the like. However, he stops before giving the sector too much due.

"We don't need them, but we are happy for them to exist."

As a Rotorua farmer, he knows the lakes issue well and says the world is changing, but it needs time.

Any industry takes time to adjust to new norms and expectations and farming is working its way through that now.

"I'm not denying it. I used to tip sheep dip down the drain. You wouldn't do that these days. In one generation, we have gone from chopping down every tree that stood to planting them."

It is the 100% Pure tagline that irks him the most. It is high risk, unrealistic and "a bit silly", Mr McKenzie says.

"We don't have a beef with the tourism sector. We have a beef with some people who are ill-informed about the nirvana they can live in New Zealand."

Prime Minster and Tourism Minister John Key disagrees, strongly. "We need to protect that brand. Farmers have increasingly recognised the responsibility they have, and we have to continue to work on our environmental profile if we want to be successful."

Tourism and farming needed to be compatible, to be open to seeing it from the other's point of view.

"There are a lot of natural conflicts that exist between the agricultural industry and parts of the tourism sector," Mr Key says. "It's always going to be challenging. It's not about pitting one against each other, it's about the right balance."

Matamata farm accountant Russell Alexander lives the balance, with one gumboot in each camp.

The Alexanders' farm became an overnight tourism story courtesy of Bilbo Baggins and Peter Jackson's location scouts.

Picked as the filming location for the Hobbit village in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the sheep and beef farm was turned into a must-see destination, and it was soon obvious that the working farm was just as alluring to tourists.

Mr Alexander says farming works in perfectly with tourism.

"The opportunity to cohabit and enhance each other is huge.

"I'm trying to grasp that opportunity. People want authentic New Zealand and that is what we are known for, agriculture. We have that spread right throughout."

He says the "dirty dairying" reputation has been sensationalised to a degree and there is more positive ground to be made by working together.

"Tourism and farming should be embracing each other. I don't think tourism is looking at what farming can offer and that is showing a weakness."

The environmental onus on farmers meant they were keen to get rid of the cowboys.

"The farming community are on notice and they know it. They are trying very hard and the bad eggs are getting flushed out more and more."

Tourism Industry Association chief executive Tim Cossar says there is limited dialogue between the industries as well as a measure of misunderstanding. But the reality is they need each other.

"Our visitors require the food the farming industry produces, and we need the primary industries to have a fantastic reputation offshore. If any of us let the side down, that can have an impact. We are New Zealand Inc and we all have an investment in that."

While tourism is using the 100% Pure brand, other sectors are too, such as Anchor's "Pure New Zealand Butter", Lion Nathan's Steinlager Pure and as the wine industry's catchline "Pure Discovery".

"That inter-relationship is there in spirit, but not in action yet."

International exposure, whether from cowpat pollution or a tourist death, affects affects the export bottom line, Mr Cossar says.

"We're an exporting nation, whether it's tourism or agriculture. We generate a lot of our wealth off our land, whether people are looking at it or farming it.

"We have to sit around a table and understand each other better. If we operate in splendid isolation we are kidding ourselves.

"Our brand is not what we portray it as, but what the consumer takes from it."

The Dominion Post