Lord of the Rings actor says NZ tourists shocked by polluted 'sewer' Middle-earth
Tourists are shocked to discover New Zealand's "Middle-earth" is dirty and polluted, says a Lord of the Rings actor who now leads high-end tours.
Bruce Hopkins has put the blade into New Zealand's environmental record, slamming the 100% Pure brand touted by lead tourism bodies.
Hopkins starred as Gamling in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and works as a tour guide in between acting jobs. He's always honest to tourists when asked about the real New Zealand: "I am pretty open about it, we ain't no land of milk and honey."
His criticisms come on top of a Ministry of Environment report noting water quality is poorer where there are pressures from agricultural and urban land use, and research by Waikato University's Sandi Ringham that finds the clean, green brand is a sham.
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"Tourists and citizens alike are convinced of a clean green image of New Zealand by, not only marketing strategies, but also the physical greenness of the landscape," Ringham writes. "The message we send to the wider world suggests New Zealand is a nation with little pollution, successful conservation, peace, and an absence of environmental problems.
"But in reality, rivers are dammed, energy resources are sold off and allocated to powerful corporations, and social inequalities are increasing in both urban and rural regions."
This week marked 15 years since the release of the first Rings movie. Film director Sir Peter Jackson spoke up for New Zealand's reputation, saying the country "is and will always be the real Middle-earth".
"New Zealand has such a variety of landscapes from lush green forests, to soaring mountains. The grandeur of these landscapes saw tourists flock to our shores, and made a huge impact on the tourism industry," Jackson said.
"New Zealand is the perfect Middle-earth and a real place that visitors can experience for years and years to come."
In Auckland's Mission Bay this weekend, French au pair Camille Francais was enjoying the sun with her friends, Lucas Klethi and Marion Menand.
Francais, 25, has been in New Zealand for less than a month, and spends her weekends sightseeing.
She had been attracted by the country's clean, green reputation, but since she had been here many locals had warned that it was over-stated.
Despite laws to protect the environment, she said Kiwis sometimes flouted them.
New Zealanders were good at managing rubbish and recycling, but parts of the country were dirty. "You can see the environment is getting worse and worse here because of tourism," she said. "For such a young country you think it would be cleaner.
"It would be very sad to spoil what a great country you have."
Hopkins isn't your typical tour guide: Topics of discussion with his tourist clients usually include focus on the degradation of the environment, the country's low wage economy and insight into other socio-economic issues in New Zealand.
He is particularly concerned with the impact of dairying on the country's waterways, which are "just gutter holes, they are sewer pipes".
"You wouldn't even think of dipping your big toe into some of these places."
Hopkins became a tour guide after attending LOTR fan conventions overseas and realised many fans planned to travel to New Zealand.
Increasingly, he became dismayed by showing tourists a country which was anything but "100% Pure".
Tourists were still stunned by much of the country, he said, but many were surprised by the intensification of dairy farming.
Hopkins began to question why the country wasn't doing more to ensure it "was as much 100% Pure as it could possible be".
"I think there's more to be gained by being honest and having integrity than being deceitful and deceptive, and currently we are leaning towards being deceptive around how we sell ourselves as a tourist destination."
Massey University freshwater ecologist Mike Joy said most tourism operators took visitors into the conservation estate, where development was prohibited. "It's New Zealanders ... living at the bad end of rivers not the tourists who stay in swanky hotels and get carted up to these pristine areas," he said.
However, some independent tourism operators were concerned about the state of the environment and "there's much more public awareness than there was".
Joy said New Zealand's clean and green image was important for its tourism and export industries. "It's the golden goose. If we lose it, we're never going to get it back again."
Acting Tourism Minister Paula Bennett disagreed, saying the Government was actively working to improve the quality of New Zealand's waterways, including setting minimum water quality standards and an extra $100 million clean-up fund for lakes, rivers and wetlands.
When asked if the 100% Pure campaign was aspirational only, she replied: "It's an award-winning campaign that is working brilliantly for New Zealand with record growth in visitor numbers. It's not, and never has been, an environmental measure."
Tourism Export Council of New Zealand chief executive Lesley Immink said there was some general concern about the environment but there had been no negative impact on international visitor numbers, nor was any predicted.
Water was the "lifeblood of the nation" and the council had backed the Choose Clean Water group's push for the Government to raise its official minimum standard for New Zealand's rivers and streams from "wadeable" to "swimmable", Immink said.
The 100% Pure campaign was a marketing promotion, not an environmental promise, but there was no room for complacency.
Immink called for the environmental polices to be reset as the numbers of international and domestic visitors climbed with an eye on ensuring the necessary infrastructure was in place.
"We've got to keep our finger on the pulse and on the Government," she said.
Green Party co-leader James Shaw said New Zealand's environment was a big drawcard. "We risk our multi-billion dollar tourism industry every time tourists come here and they see rivers they can't swim in, and cities choked with cars."
New Zealand couldn't claim to be 100% Pure when two-thirds of the country's rivers were too dirty to swim in safely, and 142 native species had got closer to extinction since National came to power, he said.
"100% Pure shouldn't be just a marketing slogan, it should be a statement of what we stand for and who we want to be as a country. We should take action to live up to it, instead of abandoning it."
The brand, which has won international acclaim, was criticised in 2013 by the UK's Daily Mail following the Fonterra infant formula scandal. For a country that marketed itself to the world with the slogan '100% Pure', New Zealand's environmental credentials were "not as impeccable as many would think", the piece said.
Rivers were too polluted to swim in and the record on preservation of natural environments was among the worst in the world on a per capita basis, it said.
A 2001 report by the Ministry of Environment warned that if New Zealand lost its clean, green image it would "have an enormous effect on the New Zealand economy".
The warnings in that report included "degraded freshwater quality, especially from intensive agricultural land use".
"There is, therefore, a real risk that the export value created or supported by New Zealand's current environmental image could be lost if we do not actively deal with the problems that threaten the image."
A Tourism New Zealand spokeswoman said there was no intention to change the 17-year-old slogan, which was not an environmental campaign, nor related to the state of New Zealand's waterways.
"It's the combination of people, landscapes and activities, a unique combination that is '100% Pure New Zealand," she said.
Hopkins, who used a LOTR clapper board from Jackson while guiding fans around the country, said he loved his time working on the films and still believed New Zealand was "paradise".
"I've always thought that I am so glad that I live in a country that is so far removed from the rest of the world – that is our greatest asset and we are in danger of screwing that up majorly."
– additional reporting Cherie Sivignon and Hannah Martin
100% PURE AT A GLANCE
* One in three international tourists, about 437,000 people, have some kind of Middle-earth experience here and nearly one in five claim the Hobbit is a factor in choosing to visit New Zealand
* The 100% campaign continues to win awards and contributes to the record growth in visitor arrivals currently being experienced – up 11.7% for the year ending October 2016
* Last year Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment released a landmark national environmental report – Environment Aotearoa 2015, which noted water quality is poorer where there are pressures from agricultural and urban land use
- Sunday Star Times