Long its tourism curse, Taranaki's isolation could soon be its biggest selling point
It's touted as Taranaki's opportunity to match the internationally renowned Tongariro Alpine Crossing but does the Pouakai Crossing have what it takes to be a hit with international tourists. Jeremy Wilkinson reports:
The world famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing is bursting at the seams and it could just be the tourism opportunity Taranaki has been waiting for.
For decades the one day Pouakai Crossing hike in the Egmont National Park has been touted as a walk that could be marketed as one of equivalent splendour to Tongariro's internationally famous crossing.
A walk that could be the drawcard to lure thousands of nature loving tourists to Taranaki just as they are lured to the Tongariro National Park.
And while Taranaki's "great walk" may indeed be a scenic wonder as it winds its way across the Pouakai ranges beneath the slopes of Mt Taranaki, it's nearly completely unknown outside of the province.
Indeed the Pouakai Crossing, as a marketable walk, still really only exists on the drawing board. The track is there, but the infrastructure both on and off the park that could make it an international attraction, are still just unfunded ideas.
But time might now be right for that to change, says Venture Taranaki's innovation and strategic projects boss John Haylock.
A rise in international tourism is putting pressure on New Zealand's frequently used attractions and the hunt is on for new tourist spots to preserve our international reputation as a land of unspoiled, and importantly uncrowded, beauty.
"The government is wanting to alleviate some of the pressure on those main attractions by promoting regional areas like Taranaki," Haylock says.
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"We would love to see it (the Pouakai Crossing) become one of the great walks of New Zealand, in the same category as Milford Sound and Tongariro."
It's an ambitious goal. Tongariro is on the well beaten international tourist route that runs from Auckland to Rotorua and onto Queenstown, while Milford Sound is a World Heritage Site of unparalleled beauty.
And Haylock acknowledges turning Taranaki into a tourist mecca is about more than just one attraction. It needs a whole package, he says, and the Pouakai Crossing would just be one part of that package.
Massey University professor of marketing, Harald Van Heerde, says marketing was a key part of Tongariro's success and tourists often overlooked Taranaki because it was not on the typical travel itinerary.
"For people to come to a place they need to know about it," he says.
So while he agrees a comprehensive range of activities is needed to draw tourists to an area, he believes many tourists had already made up their minds about where they want to go long before they arrived in the country. Influencing their travel choices is not as easy as presenting a great attraction. They need to know about it before they come here, he says.
"A lot of tourists land in Auckland, drive to Rotorua or Tongariro and then simply head south. I think there's a real perception that there's very little to do in the North Island," he says.
"I also think Taranaki is often viewed as a detour rather than a destination."
In fact international tourist numbers into Taranaki are so low so as to give rise to a joke that most who do arrive here took a wrong turn and got lost. In 2015 3.13 million international tourist travelled through New Zealand. Just 72,000, or 2 per cent, of those made it to Taranaki. About 200 a day.
Part of the problem in getting tourists onto State Highway 3 and into Taranaki is it's attractions are free, says New Plymouth MP Jonathan Young.
Travel agencies tend to naturally avoid booking tourists to go to Taranaki because Mt Taranaki, the region's beaches, New Plymouth's Coastal Walkway, Pukekura Park and the likes, don't feature a ticketing booth.
"A lack of tourism activities we can charge for in Taranaki is a primary reason for low tourist numbers to the region," Young says.
"It's hard for a tourism agency to recommend something they are not going to get a commission from."
Young has long supported marketing the Pouakai Crossing as a "sister" track to the more famous Tongariro version and his involvement gives the project a political momentum it has not had before. That being said, it's still a long way off actually becoming a reality.
If it does happen and the Pouakai Crossing becomes a drawcard for tourists to visit Taranaki, local users of the track can expect big changes.
Currently only 3000 people walk the Pouakai Crossing every year, about 10 people per day. More than 100,000 people annually hike the Tongariro Crossing, close to 300 a day on average. Though it's really more than that because most of these are crammed into the warmer months meaning, at times, the crossing can resemble a line of people queuing at rugby match rather than a liberating walk through unsullied scenery.
Stewart Barclay of Adrift Outdoor Adventures in National Park village says he doesn't think Tongariro is too crowded but it has definitely lost its isolated feeling.
He attributes much of its appeal to international tourists to it being recognised as one of the great walks of New Zealand, a branding he says would greatly enhance the attractiveness of the Pouakai Crossing.
"The government have been promoting the great walks for three decades to alleviate tourist pressure on the rest of the country," he says. "However I do think isolation is a massive drawcard, being able to give people that off the beaten track experience. I love going for a walk and seeing no one."
Barclay says people who do the great walks often want to do them all and the Pouakai Crossing could be the last piece in the puzzle for those wanting the full experience of New Zealand walks.
Tasmanian tourist Sharee McCammon completed the Tongariro Crossing before coming to Taranaki to do the Pouakai track with her family - a one-two combination Young and the crossing proposal's supporters see as the key to marketing the walk.
"I have to say Tongariro wins it for me, the range of sights and views is really just unbeatable," she says, nonetheless conceding the crowds detracted from the experience.
"I think seeing those kinds of crowds here would ruin it. The Pouakais greatest asset is that there's hardly anyone here."
Jeremy Beckers of Taranaki's newest guiding company Top Guides, compares Tongariro to what he imagines walking on the moon would be like, while the Pouakais, he says, are far more lush.
"The economic benefits of promoting the walk and bringing people to Taranaki are huge," he says, but not everyone would be happy.
"I love sharing the hidden gems of the park but part of its beauty is its isolation. If too many people start walking it that would be ruined," he says.
Beckers is not convinced the Pouakai Crossing idea can ever lure tens of thousands of nature loving tourists off the traditional tourist routes and if it did the track is far from ready to handle them.
Senior DOC ranger Dave Rogers says the existing track across the Pouakai ranges needs hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work to just get it up to scratch for the current number of users.
Were it to begin competing with the Tongariro Crossing the track would need millions of dollars worth of new toilets, water facilities and an upgraded North Egmont Visitor Centre, he says.
"If we want to fund these new initiatives, let alone the existing work that needs to be done, it's up to third party sponsors and the community to help out."
Rogers' says there would need to be a level of acceptance of what the community was opening itself up for, before it decided to start on upgrades that could potentially draw in thousands of tourists to the park.
"The environment does have a threshold, upgrading our route could perhaps alleviate some of the pressure Tongariro is experiencing.
"Because the biggest threat to the Tongariro is the numbers," he says. "It really detracts from the whole experience."