'Open your eyes' is the message

KATE DAVIDSON
Last updated 12:00 22/03/2014
Stew Robertson
PASSIONATE: Stew Robertson

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Abel Tasman National Park has a new kid on the tourism operator block in Golden Future Conservation Tours.

Local Stew Robertson started the company, which runs tours in the park based on conservation values and knowledge, last year.

Since its inception his tour has become the number one ranked attraction for Marahau on the Trip Advisor website, which allows tourists to rate their experiences. Of 22 reviews, he has 20 five-star recommendations; the other two give four stars. There is consistency in the reviews about the value of Mr Robertson's conservation knowledge.

Having a degree in marine biology and years of experience in the park gives him an edge in explaining the environments of the park and how they are interlinked. He also gives the tours a "personalised touch" and flexibility with it being an owner-operator tour.

"You get me all day long driving and walking, my education and my experience in the park," he said. Recently with two guests he catered the tour to their desire to go snorkelling in the marine reserve - using his specialised knowledge to explain what is going on in the water.

But he shuns the "eco-tourism" label.

"I call it conservation tour for the reason that I feel the ‘eco-tour' thing has been a little bit devalued just because any kind of taking people out into nature is now classed as an eco-tour," he said. "I like to think I'm a little bit different to that because I actually really delve into the amazing conservation things that are happening in the park and the area."

His company tagline, "open your eyes", comes from a moment of clarity when he went diving after learning about the marine vertebrate and the underwater world began to make sense. This is the aim of his trips.

"To give some of that to people. So instead of just walking through the bush and seeing green, they actually focus on stuff and open their eyes and when they leave this trip and go to other places in New Zealand or anywhere else in the world they'll have this stuff going on in the back of their heads and it will help them see clearer about what's going on."

It happens as you go through the park with him. After he explains the different "zones" on sea rocks you start identifying them throughout the park as you see them again - what once looked like different colours on rocks now has names and functions.

Hopping onto the boat a guest asked about using a motorised engine. Mr Robertson explained he uses an efficient engine and, to cover the tour in a day, motorised is really the only option.

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"I can show people a lot more with a motorised boat and obviously the way we drive and everything is all highly conservative and really we use little fuel at the end of the day," he said.

His tours have attracted a "more mature" and educated crowd and is for "free independent travellers who are keen to know more about the place".

Mr Robertson had been driving water taxis since 2002. But, with a young family he wanted something more. The family moved up to Bay Plenty and he enrolled in marine biology at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.

"It was just everything I am interested in and it opened a plethora of doors to me and I ended up doing a bachelor of science through Waikato," he said.

The idea for the tour came to him while driving water taxis after graduating.

He put the concept to the Alborn family, who own Aqua Taxis, as they had a boat up for sale. "We dug deep and bought the boat and I started doing it for myself," he said.

Marketing has been the greatest challenge.

"Obviously I am a very small fry in a highly competitive environment and everyone has their cosy relationships so it is just trying to find my niche in that really," he said.

His vision is not just to get the business to "thrive", but also help improve the state of the park. "I don't want to conquer the world or anything. But, most of all I want to make significant improvements in the impacts on the bay."

His passion for the park is not just a day job.

He is involved with the Experience Marine Reserve programme, which gets children "into the water" learning about the marine environment and he supports the Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust. He also wants to increase marine protection and awareness and has "a strong interest in artificial reefs and creating places where marine life can thrive unhindered by human impacts".

"‘This is my home. I know everyone who works here. We're just a big family. That's why I called the trip Golden Futures, because every year I can see it improving; I can see the place getting better.

"Over the last five years everyone notes how the birdlife has completely rebounded. Obviously there's still a long way to go, but it's just incredible how much love and experience and passion people have for this place and you can really feel it every day when you are out here," he said.

With a moratorium on Department of Conservation concessions in the park his charter and guided walking concessions are through Aqua Taxis - who he has a strong partnership with.

- The Nelson Mail

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