OPINION: On the shores of Lake Te Anau, about a third of the way between Te Anau township and Milford Sound, sits a clutch of old buildings called Fiordland National Park Lodge.
It's no Blanket Bay, where the "special deals" start at $1150 a night. Rather, it looks the sort of place where a school trip might stay and everyone would freeze.
If it's backpackers you're after, Fiordland Lodge can do the business. But if the target is high-value, short-stay tourists from burgeoning markets such as China - identified by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment as the most important to get right in its 2011 brief to incoming ministers - they're not going to stay here.
What makes this relevant is that the lodge sits at the Fiordland end of a proposal to give local and international tourists a quicker, more interesting way to get to this remote part of the country than a 10-hour return bus trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound.
Another such proposal, which involved a tunnel under the Southern Alps, was rejected by Conservation Minister Nick Smith in July. The impacts were "significant and beyond what is appropriate in two of New Zealand's most spectacular national parks and a World Heritage Area", he said.
The collective sigh of relief by New Zealanders was as palpable as the surprise that a pro-development Government would make such a decision.
Whether Smith will reach the same conclusions about this second proposal - the Fiordland Experience monorail project - remains to be seen. Instinctively, it raises the same concerns about sullying vast back country with crass, commercial intrusions.
But an inspection this week of the proposed route suggests it cannot so easily be equated with the tunnel plan.
To recap: for $179, the Fiordland Experience would ferry 160-plus passengers 40 minutes from Queenstown up Lake Wakatipu to Mt Taylor station. There, they'd board a bus for a 40-minute jaunt up a farmed valley flanked by bare or beech-covered ranges. There are some farm buildings, the occasional car, and some prized angling spots up here, and a sense of the back country emptiness that lies just beyond the bustle of Queenstown. This is all either on public roads or involves concessions from private landowners.
The next part is trickier. From the buses, tourists would be decanted into the carriages of a rubber-wheeled, electric-powered monorail for a 41-kilometre trip terminating at the ageing Fiordland Lodge.
With a 6-metre-wide corridor and up to 2m off the ground, the monorail will be narrower than a roadway, its promoters claim, and won't affect forest canopy during the 29km of this trip that crosses government-owned conservation land in the Snowdon Forest Park.
The Department of Conservation and the Fiordland Experience have spent years working out a low-impact route, which does - let's face it - put a monorail through a forest. DoC will charge for the privilege.
A forest park is not a national park. Its legal and conservation status is much lower and, therefore, potentially more acceptable - at least on paper.
While the monorail also cuts across a corner of the Unesco-designated Fiordland World Heritage Area, that designation has no legal standing and also covers a vast swath of the West Coast, including townships and other existing tourist hotspots.
If anything, the area lacks the grandeur in less reachable parts of the region and the only encroachment on the highly protected Fiordland National Park is the lodge site itself.
While he's cagey about discussing it, developer Bob Robertson plans not only to spend $170 million-odd on infrastructure for the journey, but also to spend a further $50m putting a 100- to 120-bed hotel on this site, if he can get a resource consent - by no means assured.
It's this part of the plan, which would effectively deliver a captive market to his accommodation and a hub for other Fiordland activities, which has spooked tourism operators in Te Anau, who have seen overnight visitor numbers falling consistently in recent years.
They fear the competition more than the possibility of a larger pool of tourists, many of whom only ever spend a day in Fiordland anyway, even though Robertson talks a good game about sharing the opportunities around.
Meanwhile, Robertson is talking of hourly trips in the high season and annual revenues ramping up to $100m a year within five years - which sound more like reasons to oppose than to cheer for locals, who like the quiet.
However, his argument for "two or three" big, new national attractions to refresh the country's appeal to international tourists, especially from Asian markets, chimes with the Government's thinking.
Notwithstanding the complex receivership of his Pegasus township development in the wake of the global financial crisis, Robertson has a track record of marketing to Asian consumers and in South Island property development.
However, what would happen to 41km of monorail track if he built it and they didn't come?
Assuming Smith can get himself over the environmental, commercial and political hurdles - and that's a big "if" - he should only contemplate permission subject to cast-iron commitments on both project funding and the removal of infrastructure in the Snowdon Forest Park in the event of its disuse. BusinessDesk
Disclosure: Fiordland Experience proposed and funded Pattrick Smellie's tour of the terrain covered by its proposal.
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