OPINION: At least 35 years of frustrating battles with bureaucracy finally ended on Monday when the small resident population of Stewart Island was able to impose a legal charge on visitors, a move that should eventually lead to the development of modern services needed to cater for the 40,000-odd tourists who visit each year.
Tourism has for years been the main income driver for the island, a truly remarkable natural wilderness, but the visitor numbers have also imposed near-impossible demands on the largely basic facilities available in Oban, the one built-up area, and overwhelmed the ability of the 400-odd locals to fund improvements.
The $5 visitor levy that came into force on Monday is expected to provide about $150,000 in the first year and from all accounts the locals can't wait to spend the money. Top of the list, upgrading the toilets, then the jetties - most visitors arrive by boat, either on the daily ferry from Bluff on the mainland and, less frequently but often in larger numbers, on launches from visiting cruise ships.
So a small start, but a start nonetheless and as the facilities are improved more and more tourists will be putting Stewart Island on their must-see list.
The island truly is a special place, largely free of the predators such as stoats, ferrets and weasels that were introduced to the main islands by early settlers, so tramping along the tracks across the island can lead to close encounters with birds such as the Stewart Island kiwi.
It also has a unique mix to its extensive native forests. Beech trees, common throughout native forests in New Zealand, have never become established there and there are some interesting theories how that came about, or didn't.
It is generally accepted that the island's forests, including the world's southernmost conifer forest, were established only after the last ice age, from seeds carried by birds. Because beech trees release their seeds into the air and the island's position is against the prevailing winds from the mainland the beech never made it across the 30-kilometre strip of Foveaux Strait.
The islanders were quick to acknowledge this week the efforts of Invercargill MP Eric Roy, who managed to persuade Parliament to pass a special bill allowing the levy to be imposed, along with the work of one of their own, Margaret Hopkins, who was one of a small group that came up with the levy concept in the 1970s. Margaret, who still lives on the island, and the others of her group could see the tourist potential if better facilities could be provided, but realised the small population, relying largely on fishing for income, could not afford to do it themselves.
Even without significant upgrades to facilities tourism has become the main revenue generator on the island, but it has taken a lot of hard work by the isolated community that is still cut off from the country's electricity supply. Power is provided by diesel generators, at a cost about five times the amount mainlanders pay, though that too will eventually change. Electricity generator Meridian has been working with the Southland District Council on experimental solar generation.
Stewart Island has been pretty much one of New Zealand's hidden scenic gems. The new visitor levy will over time provide the resources to make it even more attractive to visitors and the whole southern region stands to benefit from increasing tourism numbers.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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