Kiwis risk losing an 'unalienable right to wild places'

Otago Tramping Club member John Armstrong on the Milford Track, one of the Great Walks. Privatising these routes would ...
PHOTO: NEIL RATLEY / SOUTHLAND T

Otago Tramping Club member John Armstrong on the Milford Track, one of the Great Walks. Privatising these routes would show "a disregard for what made them special" says a tramping group leader.

A rush to make New Zealand's wild places profitable is putting the "unalienable rights" of Kiwis at risk, a recreation group says.

Growing tourism numbers are having an impact around the country, but nowhere more so than the wilder reaches of the South Island. 

Infrastructure in once remote areas such as Mackenzie and Central Otago is groaning beneath the weight of the influx.

The Pancake Rocks, on the West Coast, are the second most visited natural attraction in New Zealand after the Huka Falls.
Petr Hlavacek/Supplied

The Pancake Rocks, on the West Coast, are the second most visited natural attraction in New Zealand after the Huka Falls.

A recent report commissioned by a group of tourism leaders, prepared by consultants McKinsey & Company, came up with a raft of measures that would raise $130 million each year to ease the problem.

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They included a bed tax, fees for car parking at national parks, and privatising the Great Walks, which collectively lose about $3m each year under Department of Conservation (DOC) management.

Trampers at the Blue Lake, near Nelson.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Trampers at the Blue Lake, near Nelson.

While commercialising the back-country may help pay for necessary infrastructure, the pressure to do so has made some groups uncomfortable.

The Federated Mountain Club (FMC), which has 20,000 members and represents the 300,000 New Zealanders who tramp annually, said some in the tourism industry were becoming "enchanted" with the economic opportunities.

While infrastructure upgrades were necessary, turning the country's most rugged, picturesque corners into a product was a dangerous path to follow, vice president Jan Finlayson said.

"[We] believe we've got to plan for tourism at a deeper level than that," she said.

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"Our national identity is tied up in Aotearoa's hills, where the cash economy barely registers... the freedom of the hills is part of being a New Zealander.

"It's crucial that our way ahead in tourism is based on principles that prioritise us, our home here and our long-term future." 

Ideas such as privatising the Great Walks, routes painstakingly built across generations through some of the country's most beautiful spaces, showed a disregard for what made them special, she said.

Tourism, which is now New Zealand's largest industry, risked heading down the same path as the dairy industry, which had pursued high-volume output without proper regard to the downsides.

The discussion going forward needed to extend beyond tourism leaders, and the FMC was calling for a taskforce to properly plan for the industry's future.

Among its key positions were that DOC needed to be better funded to manage conservation land, and New Zealanders' "unalienable right to wild places" needed to be at the forefront.

"Tourism experts are obvious leaders in their sphere of flights, bed nights and cafes. Where species, recreation and natural quiet are concerned, conservation experts should guide the way.

"A broad frame of reference is needed for imagining a course ahead... Diverse, wise heads and voices are required in the planning."

Tourism West Coast chief executive Jim Little said communities could not keep up with the demands on infrastructure. 

The West Coast was 86 per cent DOC-managed and had only 32,000 ratepayers. 

"A small community like Punakaiki for example.

"The Pancake Rocks are the second most visited natural attraction in New Zealand after the Huka Falls. They have 448,000 visitors a year. It puts a lot of pressure on the toilets and carparks.

"There needs to be some sort of fee or levy for visiting that covers the cost. I don't know the answer about collecting it but something has to be done," he said. 

He recently paid at a toll booth to visit a beach in Western Australia. 

"I asked some other Chinese tourists there if they minded paying and they said no it was very cheap for such a beautiful place," he said. 

"International visitors need to stump up but the DOC estate still should be available to Kiwis," he said. 

DOC's acting director of recreation, tourism and heritage Gavin Walker said the Great Walks were not created to make money.

"DOC is funded by the Government to provide the core infrastructure that enables New Zealanders and international visitors to access our great outdoors and enables businesses and others to derive value from this infrastructure. 

"However, given the recent surge in visitors we need to examine whether the current approach remains appropriate and look into the possibility of new ways to manage increased use," he said. 

 - Stuff

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