Environment Election 2017: Is 100% Pure New Zealand a big lie?
For the past 18 years Tourism New Zealand's 100% Pure campaign has lured international visitors here with glorious images of clean, green scenery, but it's wearing a little thin at home.
Nelson fishing guide Zane Mirfin is blunt. "I see it as"100 per cent pure bulls...."
He points to the Federation of Freshwater Anglers' Lost Rivers of the South Island map which uses skull and crossbones to denote the 70-plus rivers that are now un-fishable or have declined because of intensive farming and large scale irrigation.
He says an incident where fishing guides and their American clients were pelted with 1080 pellets from a poison drop while fishing the Mokihinui River was "not a good look" for a country branding itself as "pure."
Naturally enough tourism New Zealand (TNZ) promotions do not feature lakes turned to an unappetising sludge by dairy run-off, rivers clogged with rock snot, and roadside rest areas dotted with excrement and loo paper deposited by careless freedom campers.
So when a recent Tourism New Zealand video showed a woman about to drink water from a river, Kiwis were swift to accuse TNZ of peddling a "dangerous lie" to unsuspecting visitors.
Lauded as one of the most successful stories in the history of national branding, the 100% Pure slogan has won a slew of destination marketing awards.
It is credited with helping push overseas tourist numbers to 3.6m a year, supporting an industry that directly or indirectly employs more than 300,000 New Zealanders.
TNZ chief executive Stephen England-Hall still believes the brand has plenty of life left in it yet, claiming it's selling a unique New Zealand package that includes people, food, and culture along with scenic beauty.
"We're not making an environmental claim, or promoting an environmental standard."
And he says the latest survey of 9000 international visitors showed they were happy with their experience, with 96 per cent saying the environment met or exceeded their expectations.
TNZ monitoring of social media comments and images on social media returned equally positive results.
Director of AUT's New Zealand Tourism Research Institute Simon Milne counters that by pointing out that when the survey asked visitors to rate our environmental practice, only 26 per cent said it was amongst the best globally.
If we really were totally "pure" that figure should be closer to 70 per cent, he says.
When it came to transport, commercial accommodation, and public infrastructure the environmental ratings were about average or lagging behind the rest of the world.
Auckland, for example, relied on diesel buses and clogged motorways to get people from the airport to downtown.
"Visitors' first experience of this 100 per cent pure country is to get on a bus instead of catching an electric train."
Milne describes the video of the woman drinking river water as blatant green washing and challenges TNZ to be more accurate with its promotional material.
"We're not saying 'come to New Zealand, our water is fresh and pure in this particular river in the high country where there's no cattle around'."
Milne says we need to look at how much is spent on encouraging people to come here, versus spending on infrastructure, "to make sure we're not killing the goose that lays the golden egg."
Environment Canterbury councillor and freshwater ecologist Lan Pham recently highlighted New Zealand's lack of swimmable rivers by releasing a video showing her frolicking in paddocks among irrigators.
She says unlike other places where rivers run red with dye or other pollutants, our nasties - like nitrogen run off from farms - are often less visible.
But the public is wising up and so are the international media.
Al Jazeera is screening a two part documentary series entitled "New Zealand: Polluted Paradise" looking at our freshwater crisis.
We also got a drubbing in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month in a story about "the land of milk and money" where the dairy boom is feeding environmental fears.
Pham says we can probably get away with using the pure brand a little longer because the positive perception of New Zealand is so strong.
"But this is a race against time to make that perception a reality and we can't put a foot wrong.
"If we lose this brand, we're losing so much more than just our reputation, this is about our exports, our whole economic base.
"Our powerhouse industries of tourism and agriculture fundamentally depend on our environment."
Within the tourism industry support for 100 per cent pure is tempered by some nervousness that unless we up our game, there is a risk the brand could bite us on the bum.
It would only take a mass outbreak of the sort of waterborne stomach bug that felled thousands of Havelock North residents last year to hit a tourist resort like Franz Josef, or Queenstown.
Chicago-based TimeZoneOne chief executive Daniel Thomas does promotional work for tourism agencies in the US and New Zealand.
He warns that news like this travels fast and, once acquired, turning around a negative reputation can be a "long journey" if perception becomes reality.
Thomas is fine with TNZ continuing to use the 100 per cent pure tag line, provided politicians do more than pay lip service to claims about protecting the environment.
"You have to put your money where your mouth is in this regard and it's up to the New Zealand people to really assess what [politicians] are saying, and hold them accountable to their promises.
"If you think what tourism has done for the New Zealand economy, and how it has grown over the last 20 years, it's got to be a number one priority."
Dave Kettle sees a strong divergence in attitude between foreigners and Kiwis when it comes to environmental standards: what they will accept, we won't.
His company the New Zealand Fine Touring Group brings 20,000 international visitors here annually, mostly independent travellers who get around eight regions of the country on average.
He says they probably can't drink water from lakes and streams back home and don't expect to here either.
"It's more important to Kiwis that these things are fixed up because everyone has stories about being able to swim in rivers and now they can't
"You go to the UK and every highway, byway and roundabout is littered.
"So we do have higher standards here which is fantastic, but we can't move the goal posts.
"We can't say, OK the rest of the world is fine with how they do it, so let's measure it on those standards; that's wrong."
- A third of native plants and invertebrates, and 70 per cent of fish threatened or at risk of extinction
- Urban rivers have 22 times the level of E.Coli levels of rivers in native areas
- Out of 65 monitored lakes, 24 are poor to very poor and rarely suitable for recreation
- Nitrogen levels are worsening in more than half of monitored rivers
Source: Ministry for the Environment 2017
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