Think Abel Tasman National Park, think 100 per cent pure New Zealand experience. But how much longer can New Zealand live up to its pristine image in the eyes of the world's tourists? Naomi Arnold investigates.
It used to be known as New Zealand's longest toilet.
A decade ago, the sandy necklaces strung out along the Abel Tasman coast would throng with thousands of tourists at the peak of every summer, putting pressure on park services that weren't geared to cope.
There were grumbles about the tourists, pit stops on the side of the track, and complaints of overcrowding as buses disgorged more travellers into the park.
Hugh Canard remembers it well. He is literally the poster-boy for Abel Tasman National Park, having appeared on Tourism New Zealand's 100% Pure New Zealand branding that has been slathered on buses and billboards from New York to London for the last 10 years.
He's also on the postage stamp which features the park. "That's my big claim to fame. That was me, the round-shouldered guy in the kayak."
Now chief of Ecotourism NZ, Canard was there as the Abel Tasman tourist industry started to boom. "I first started paddling there in the 70s and 80s. If you were in a kayak, people in boats used to come over and ask if you were all right, it was so unusual."
He says it was about 1996 that visitor numbers started to accelerate, "and right through to 2000 it accelerated like mad". In five years, his then-business, Ocean River Kayaks, went from 1500 customers a year to 6000.
"If you're an operator it's a pain in the arse because you're trying to deliver a beautiful flat ocean with dolphins and things frolicking, and penguins here and birds singing there, and a beach all on your own; you can frolic naked in the ocean kind of thing; and the reality is there's five guys trying to waterski off it and there's probably 30 kayaks on it."
It still happens for about a month every summer that's just the way it is, he says. But at this time of the year, "a feather could sit on the water there for an hour without sinking".
These days the numbers visiting the park have plateaued, but the Department of Conservation has still had to cap kayak numbers at 66 commercial trips a day in the peak season of October to March. It's part of a push for sustainable tourism over the past five years that has seen tourism operators focus on what they can do to ensure the future of their business particularly in order to satisfy international travellers with "tourist guilt" about the ecological impact of their carbon emissions.
Sustainability will become increasingly important to tourists who swarm our shores every summer, according to former parliamentary commissioner for the environment Morgan Williams. "There's 2.4 million of these pattering little feet every year now," he says from an armchair at Nelson's Rutherford Hotel cafe.
In town for the Ecotourism New Zealand conference, he spent a decade in Parliament investigating tourism and its environmental impact in New Zealand. Now, he's semi-retired and though "meant to be taking it easy", he says ruefully, he holds adjunct professor positions at the universities of Canterbury and Queensland as well as running his own sustainability consultancy, FutureSteps.
"I don't think a lot of people realise that tourists are coming from a limited number of countries. Eighty per cent come from only 20 countries: 17 European, the US, Canada and Japan. The level of conversation within those societies, within business and within government of what the hell does sustainability mean, and how do you make it work, and how do we live within a world with limits has been developing in a very rich way."
Except, in the United States, for an eight-year hiccup called the Bush administration. "It's taken off again now with a hiss and a roar under Barack Obama's instruction."
What that means is that travellers, investing huge amounts of time and money in coming from the opposite ends of the Earth, will bring with them certain expectations of the tourism product they're buying, and will question anything that doesn't equate with what they're promised.
"I do a lot of work in the agricultural sector and Fonterra's quite conscious about docking of cow's tails because they've had tourists comment about that. So they've been discouraging the practice for some time. Global businesses like Fonterra have their antennae on all that sort of stuff which the average New Zealand dairy farmer might not have, but the company does."
The furore over the cultural insensitivity of a packet of Eskimo lollies shows how sensitive travellers can be to something we wouldn't think twice about. But why should we care what others think? Canard says we have to if we want their money.
Annual visitor expenditure almost doubled from $3.5 billion in 1999 to $6.1b in the year to March 2009.
"Tourism is the biggest earner of foreign exchange as an industry sector and it employs an awful lot of people."
For Bruce Poon Tip, chief executive and founder of the world's biggest adventure travel company, Gap Adventures, the issues New Zealand faces are unique.
"You have a tourist board and government that has really embodied a lot in a very big sweeping statement with the 100% Pure campaign. Underneath all that, the idea has changed, and so the challenge for New Zealand is for the experience to equal the statement."
Sustainability has become a major push but can also be a major headache for tourism operators. Delivering that pure experience is something they're continuing to grapple with as they try to be all things to all markets, appeal to Kiwis as well as foreigners, and still manage responsible business practices into the future.
Jane-Maree Holmes operates Nelson-based Catamaran Sailing and Launch Charters with her husband Martin. Aware of a tourist's judgmental eye cast over their operation, they've worked hard to get their business operating as sustainably as possible, recently achieving Qualmark's new Enviro-Silver certification.
"Environmentally, sailing and boating is just a whole interaction and interlinking of the weather and the sea and environment, so with that comes the responsibility of looking after your environment. It's always just been part of our thinking."
Darryl Wilson's family has been operating Wilsons Abel Tasman National Park tourism ventures since 1977.
"Our family were the first European settlers so that's where we take it back to, from a sense of sustainability and custodianship of the park," he says.
"That's why we're supportive of DOC in saying market forces shouldn't drive competitive activity in an area like this there should be someone above making sure it's logical and fair and sustainable. Overcrowding is just a seasonal issue for a few days, a few hours, a few weeks of the year, and tourism operators just need to get working more in tune and recognising that you can't all do the same thing and that it's spread through the day and offer a range of activities."
There's been a lot of commitment at the park level as well. Department of Conservation Nelson Marlborough conservator Neil Clifton says DOC has invested millions of dollars in infrastructure to keep the Abel Tasman natural on top, but with highly-managed systems underneath.. A new management plan released in December last year restricted numbers during the peak season of October to February, making Abel Tasman one of the few places in New Zealand where commercial visitor access has been capped. A barge now ships human waste out of the park, to be dumped in the Tasman District Council's sewerage system.
One hundred thousand litres of tourist poo is shipped out every year: now that's something to put on a postcard. But it all used to stay underground, says Clifton, buried in pit toilets. New ones were dug every time they filled up. "The way the park was used was unsustainable."
But Poon Tip says New Zealand's marketing campaign doesn't have to just rely on its pristine bush and beaches. He believes being known overseas as unspoilt also means having authentic indigenous and local communities.
That's a statement that would resonate with tourist towns. Some residents of Kaikoura recently set up a petition to fight the looming spectre of a McDonald's fast-food outlet. British tourist Steven Davey said it would "spoil the quaintness" of Kaikoura. "It's not really the type of place you would expect to come across a McDonald's."
Unique local character is highly prized by tourists, and Poon Tip says we should be celebrating and promoting that as well.
Indeed, Nelson is a top place to hang out in. "Great food, great people, great town, great climate," he Twittered happily on Thursday.
In Auckland the day before, he told the New Zealand Herald that one of his favourite tourism experiences had been the Otara markets: an urban spectacle that doesn't often adorn those London billboards.
Victoria University futurologist Ian Yeoman warns that dwindling oil supplies are a huge threat to tourism.
"One of the big threats to international travel is do we have technologies in place that will come about when we start to have problems with peak oil? There are fundamental problems within the airline industry at the moment. It's all about jet fuel. If you lose oil there's nothing else there."
But though he says there are "big concerns" about water, oil and food, the more people talk about extremes of urbanisation and climate change, the more they want to get away.
"The big counter-trend is, `I want an authentic, real, pure experience', which is what New Zealand's all about. So in today's environment we want open places, we want tranquillity, something very raw and simple.
"People are looking for clarity and something bonded to community. Something with meaning." It explains the rise of volunteerism as a tourism experience, he says.
Which makes it even more important that the product we're delivering is quality, says Williams. "It creates a risk for companies that are saying `I'm an ecotourism operator' and then turn up with a 10-year-old clunker, second-hand Japanese bus that's belching smoke. Hello?"
But Canard, looking back on a career of tourism in the region, is confident about the future. "Nelson is the place where New Zealanders would like to live and New Zealand is the place where the rest of the world would like to live," he says fondly. "But no operator can possibly deliver that without the support of central and local government."
New Zealand travel experiences simply have to be sustainable, says Yeoman. Tourists come here for depth, authenticity and honesty. "New Zealand has to deliver on its promise of 100% Pure. Because if you don't, the world puts it on YouTube."
TOURISM IN PARADISE
1942 - Abel Tasman National Park established to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman's visit to the coast.
1977 - First commercial boat service established.
1999 - New hut booking system launched on the coastal track to ensure beds for walkers.
2004 - Camp booking system introduced to even out demand on campsites.
2006 - Estimated international visitors to the park hits 100,000 per year, up from 30,000 in 1997.
2008 - Department of Conservation 10-year management plan limits commercial activity in the park to 66 commercial kayak trips and 50 guided walking trips per day. An extra 7.9 km2 is added to the park.
- The Nelson Mail
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