Sustainable tourism: business or experience?
The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically altered how we as a society live, work and play. Hit hard by the country’s border closed to international visitors, those in the tourism industry look to what might become their “new normal”. One thing appears certain — tourism in New Zealand can not go back to the way it was. Otago Daily Times reporter Laura Smith took a look at what might be in store for southern tourism.
Droves of hikers, gas-guzzling campervans and littering freedom campers. New Zealand’s tourism industry became a victim of its own success.
Its growth — unsustainable.
But what is sustainability?
The Cambridge Dictionary describes it as being the quality of being able to continue over a period of time.
Developed by the country’s tourism industry association, Tourism Industry Aotearoa, the New Zealand Tourism Sustainability Commitment focused on four aspects: economic, visitor, community and environment.
It aimed for tourism businesses to be resilient and innovative, as well as having expectation-exceeding visitor experiences, communities that benefit from and were supported by tourism, and for a protected and enhanced natural environment.
At a conference in Christchurch at the beginning of the month, Lincoln University Emeritus Professor of Tourism David Simmons spoke on tourism reform strategies.
He explained how New Zealand tourism had got into trouble. It was well on track to reaching a target of a $41billion industry by 2025 but there had been no discussion about limits or how to control it when that target was set.
Things had changed over time, he said, and sustainability had become a focus.
The previous government set up the Tourism Futures Taskforce, which anchored discussion around regenerative tourism.
Aspects of it were to be carried forward in the new strategy.
Prof Simmons called it flavour of the month, but explained regenerative tourism as building capital while “giving back” to the land and the people.
In 2019, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton warned more tourists — both domestic and international — were putting the environment under pressure and eroding the very attributes that made New Zealand an attractive country to visit.
International visitor numbers were approaching four million and had the potential to rise to 10million-13million annually by 2050.
This year’s report was titled “Not 100% — but four steps closer to sustainable tourism”.
Those steps included suggestions such as a departure tax that reflected the environmental cost of flying internationally from New Zealand and using the revenue to support the development of low-emissions aviation technologies. It would also help finance Pacific Island nations, as well as help the Department of Conservation address the loss of wildness and natural quiet at some natural attractions.
It would also look to strengthen the standard for self-contained freedom camping, with improved oversight.
This year, Doc also launched its own Heritage and Visitor strategy, last developed in 1996, which aimed to sustainably manage visitors to protect and enhance the values of New Zealand’s natural, cultural and historic heritage.
It identified what was important to visitors in areas managed by Doc and pointed to a future where growing demand for recreation and tourism could increase the tension between visitor expectations and conservation efforts.
As the domestic and international tourism sectors have grown, increasing and fluctuating visitor numbers have created pressure — particularly congestion at popular places during peak periods — on visitor services and infrastructure.
In March, tourism minister Stuart Nash spoke at the Otago Tourism Policy School in Queenstown, where he said there was an opportunity to reset the industry on a financially sustainable model.
“The status quo cannot, will not, be the model of the direction of tourism. That much is clear.
“It is unsustainable, it lacks resilience, and we won’t go back to how it was.”
Costs and negative impacts associated with tourism must be mitigated or priced into the visitor experience, and not funded by New Zealand ratepayers and taxpayers, he said.
The Government intends to partner with the industry, both businesses and workers, and this is essential to achieve this transformation.
Prof Simmons outlined how a move to regeneration might look.
His suggestions included investing in nature and system health, taking a long-term perspective, understand systemic effects and to increase human consciousness of being part of nature.
“We need to reconnect as a New Zealand community, as well as inviting our visitors to do this.”
Therefore, restore the mauri of place.
Yet the question remains of how to avoid a rush for growth once borders reopened.
Last month, the master plan for the Milford Opportunities Project was released to the public.
Prof Simmons noted it carried bold recommendations.
“But it is about the quality of the experience, it’s about honouring papatuanuku, and it is about feeling small in the face of nature.”
While not without criticism, the recommendations within the plan ticked all four sustainability boxes.
When it was launched, tourism minister Stuart Nash said tourism at Milford Sound could not return to its pre-Covid state.
“As a tourist experience, it was crowded, rushed, noisy and unsafe.”
In 2019, 870,000 visitors went to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, and the number was expected to reach 1.2million by 2023 and 2million by 2035.
Response within Fiordland was generally positive, but Queenstown operators were not so happy, particularly with the proposal to remove the Milford airstrip.
University of Otago department of tourism senior lecturer Dr Julia Albrecht could see the benefits.
“The changes this Government envisages for tourism are potentially a great chance for places like Te Anau to increase the length of stay and therefore the range of products it can offer.”
For the community, it could be game-changing, and change was on the horizon anyway.
“If not now, then in five, 10 or whatever years.”
She said it should be viewed as an opportunity.
“I know this is incredibly hard because of all the things that have been piled on businesses in the past one and a-half years already … what’s the value in trying to reopen to the way it was three years ago?”
Since moving to New Zealand in 2005, Dr Albrecht had worked in the area of nature-based tourism, with a focus on strategy and planning.
Her recent research looked at sustainability: “What do communities do to get the tourism that they want?”
The project investigated destination managers’ perceptions of sustainability, and their efforts towards implementing projects or initiatives for a sustainable destination.
While there was a colloquial understanding of what sustainable tourism was, she worked to figure out if operators used the term as a marketing ploy or whether it had deeper meaning for them.
The research was comparative, and involved interviewing operators in Austria and southern New Zealand.
Having analysed hundreds of pages of interviews, she found they were focused on the economic component of sustainability.
There was some focus on natural sustainability, but mostly to protect the tourism product.
However, there was hardly any mention of sustainability in the context of having the community agree with any tourism development.
“Having this large group of destination managers from two countries 20,000km apart essentially agree sustainability was very much about the business surviving and the destination surviving as a tourism hotspot, rather than a comprehensive approach to sustainability we might expect, was very interesting.”
Therefore, the question pivoted to what destination managers in New Zealanders had in mind when speaking about sustainable tourism.
“There has been repeated calls to tourism and tourists to be paying their own way, and if there are negative impacts of visitation to not only the natural resource but also to the community … tourism should really somehow make up for it.”
The moment of truth would be when the borders reopened.
“What approach are we going to take?”
While there may be few international visitors on our shores, New Zealanders had taken to Great Walks with vigour.
Four of the 10 around the country wind through Fiordland and Southland bush.
When hut bookings opened for the 2021-22 season, several of the tracks were sold out within a matter of minutes via a first-come-first-served online booking system.
This was despite the border closure.
“I don’t think anybody was really surprised by that,” Dr Albrecht said.
It was interesting however, in that New Zealanders had realised the quality of the product.
“They’ve been forced to rediscover their own country, and they are amazed by how much they enjoy it.”
She did not expect it to abate any time soon, as the experience created loyalty to an area, and was not something people would only do once.
Access to the conservation estate, and the experience within it, was part of the New Zealand identity, she explained.
As to whether the system should be changed when borders reopened, she said probably not.
“At the moment it’s fair for everyone.”
New Zealanders were, however, at an advantage from anyone overseas being in a convenient time-zone.
“We also don’t know whether New Zealanders’ interest in the Great Walks specifically is going to continue to be that high.”
She was also unsure of how many bookings had been made by operators in the past, and whether any portion of spaces would be sold to concessionaires in future.
“This contingent may even be taken out before the other spots even go on the market … I don’t know what’s going to happen in that space.”
There were other points she would observe and make notes on, including if the season’s popularity meant increased pressure on the shoulder or off-season, when huts cost less, or nothing.
It raised issues such as visitor preparedness, increased risk and accidents.
“It’s more competition rather than less sustainability on the track.”
In a general sense, she would not argue if it was more or less sustainable as the product was essentially unchanged.
She said, however, it related to climate-change sustainability.
“Are they an international visitor who has flown to get here or are they Dunedinites who drive for a few hours to Southland or the lakes region?”