By Harvey C. Perkins & Christopher Rosin

In 2015 tourism overtook dairying to become New Zealand’s largest export earner. Harvey Perkins and Christopher Rosin discuss how the tourism industry has made money off the land.

In 2015 tourism overtook dairying to become New Zealand’s largest export earner. Developments in Lake Tekapo in the South Island’s Mackenzie Country illustrate the impact of this turn of events. Until the early 1970s it was an isolated township on the shores of the lake, midway on the highway between lowland Canterbury and Aoraki/Mt Cook. It was known for hydroelectricity generation, the University of Canterbury’s Mt John Observatory, a New Zealand Army training camp and an annual high country merino sale. There was little in the township itself apart from modest holiday homes and a campground. Commercial tourism activities were limited, and visitors, mainly domestic tourists, would pause to gaze at the spectacular views over the lake to the Southern Alps or use the surrounding waterways and mountains for recreation. Many would also take time to visit (in relative solitude) the lakeside Church of the Good Shepherd, which had been built in 1935, and the nearby dog statue, which was commissioned in 1968 and dedicated to the working border collies of the Mackenzie sheep runs.

Today Lake Tekapo is much changed. It now receives many of the Mackenzie District’s more than 550,000 annual visitors, over half of them from overseas. The locality is actively promoted to a widening range of nationalities and interest groups, some of them quite specialised. A good example is astronomers, who, since June 2012, have been attracted to the 430,000-hectare Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve associated with the Mt John Observatory. Commercial tourist attractions and activities have increased in number and an expanding range of tourist accommodation is available. Visitors and locals alike share a much more diverse array of hospitality and retailing services and more are being built. As a consequence of the growing number of roadside commercial buildings, it has become much harder to view the lake from the main road passing through the township. And a visit to the Church of the Good Shepherd during opening hours ceased to be a private and tranquil experience some time ago.

Many of New Zealand’s rural places have experienced similar patterns of tourism growth. As in Lake Tekapo, their foundational characteristics are often still there but have been supplemented by a greatly diversified range of sites, sights and commercial recreational opportunities. A significant number of these exploit a combination of high-amenity landscapes and biological resources for their success. International travellers are not the only beneficiaries: local residents and domestic visitors have been keen to take advantage of the greatly improved services that have accompanied tourism growth. Recently, however, the drawbacks of growing crowds at an increasing number of tourism sites have become obvious. More and more stories appear in popular media about overseas tourists ‘crowding out’ New Zealand recreationists from iconic locations. Using the three themes of cetacean, cycling and wine and food tourism, this chapter poses the questions: what kind of future for New Zealand tourism does the country want and how should it best be managed?

Cetacean tourism

Ecotourism has been an important element of New Zealand’s tourism repertoire since the 1980s. Ecotourists travel to see and enjoy natural areas, and commonly subscribe to an ethos that tourism should be ‘responsible’ and contribute to nature conservation and local economic development. Cetacean tourism, watching and interacting with whales and dolphins, is one such high-profile ecotourism activity and represents a remarkable transformation in a short time in the ways that these sea creatures are valued. Commercial whale and dolphin watching is now hosted in 119 countries and territories, many of which once benefited from harvesting cetaceans. The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimated that thirteen million people worldwide went whale and dolphin watching in 2008, generating $US2.1 billion in annual revenue, and employing around 13,000 workers. Commercial whale watching originated in the mid-1950s off the shores of Southern California, but in New Zealand it is a much more recent phenomenon.

Cetacean tourism in New Zealand is possible because about half the world’s eighty species of cetaceans are found, and receive statutory protection, in its waters. Long before commercial cetacean watching became a reality here, the antics of three particular dolphins hinted at future possibilities. Pelorus Jack, a Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus), accompanied vessels across the mouth of Admiralty Bay (east of D’Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds) between about 1888 and 1912, and Pelorus Jack II, a Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori), joined boats in Pelorus Sound’s Hikapu Reach in 1944. Opo, a young bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), frequented Hokianga Harbour from early 1955 to March 1956, interacting with bathers and people in small boats. The novelty of these cetaceans’ seeming keenness to engage with humans was reflected in popular media reports and official interest at the time. Today commercialised encounters with cetaceans occur in a number of places off the shores of both the North and South Islands.

A good North Island example is the excursions run by Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari and promoted using the byline: ‘Discover today. Protect for tomorrow. Share our unique sea safari – aboard New Zealand’s most accessible marine research vessel’. This family-owned operation hosts tourists for a combination of cetacean and birdlife encounters, set in the waters of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, which lies to the east of the city of Auckland. The operators work closely with conservation groups and local universities and allow their boat to be used for research activities. On board, tourists are given the opportunity to hear from guides about cetacean research and the various conservation efforts associated with this. The excursions depart daily from the Viaduct Harbour in downtown Auckland, illustrating how accessible tourist cetacean encounters can be.

The best-known site for such encounters in New Zealand is, however, in the South Island at Kaikōura in Canterbury. Until the late 1980s Kaikōura was a small railway and fishing village. Travellers on State Highway 1 used it mainly as a comfort stop and to buy crayfish (Jasus edwardsii), or visit the seal colonies (Arctocephalus forsteri), its remnant Māori pā sites and whaling era relics. The fishing community shared its harvesting grounds with dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) and sperm (Physeter macrocephalus), southern right (Eubalaena australis) and humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) whales, which are attracted to these coastal waters by a peculiar combination of ocean currents, undersea topography and associated ecology. The recognition that people would pay to watch and interact with these animals led to the transformation of Kaikōura from a coastal whistle-stop to an international travel destination. The township’s population has increased to 1971 permanent residents (as at 2013), who host more than 800,000 tourists annually. Cetacean tourism means now that Kaikōura features prominently in Lonely Planet and Rough Guides and is acknowledged internationally as an important ecotourism location.

The commercialisation of cetacean tourism in Kaikōura was initiated by two companies in the late 1980s. They, like their counterparts in Queenstown’s adventure tourism businesses, discussed in Chapter, recognised the value of an emerging market of mainly young overseas and domestic tourists looking for authentic attractions and experiences. The first company, Whale Watch, was established in 1987 by the local Māori authority, Te Rūnanga o Kaikōura. The company is held within a trust that was established by tribal elders. They had become concerned about limited opportunities for their people and saw local business development as an avenue worth exploring. They considered the whales and dolphins a resource likely to generate employment and income that could contribute to community development, education and environmental protection. The second company, Dolphin Encounter, began with the running of dolphin-watching trips in 1989 which were then extended to swimming with dolphins in the open sea. This company also has a charitable focus and through its allied Encounter Foundation supports a range of educational, environmental and recreational projects.

Apart from the need to cater for a new community of tourists and the very considerable global cultural appeal of interacting with cetaceans, both companies identified the regularity, if not absolute predictability, of the spectacular performances of whales and dolphins off the shores of Kaikōura as the key to commercialisation. These include the acrobatics of the dusky dolphin, and the sperm whale ‘blowing’ on the surface as well as diving with a majestic display of its tail. Images of, and stories about, these performances are featured in company print and electronic advertising and on Tourism New Zealand’s website. As with all perennially popular activities, word-of mouth stories also play a part in drawing tourists to Kaikōura.

If whales and dolphins in these performances are thought of as actors, then tourism operators such as Whale Watch and Dolphin Encounter can usefully be characterised as helping to stage their performances for tourist audiences. This is at once both straightforward and complicated. Taking clients’ money and boating them to the places where whales and dolphins congregate and then bringing them safely back ashore is often relatively simple, but sometimes things get in the way. The animals may be absent or not sufficiently concentrated in one area, they may not perform as expected, or the weather at sea may disrupt the trip, making it uncomfortable or impossible to continue. This potential for disruptions in cetacean tourism is acknowledged openly by the operators as they attempt to tread a fine line between offering the best of experiences and dealing with unforeseen natural variability. They offer refunds or complimentary future trips to tourists if the planned encounter does not occur.

The operators also acknowledge the potential negative impact on cetaceans of excessive human and technological interaction. The Department of Conservation, while accepting that whale and dolphin encounters provide educational opportunities, is concerned that the rapid growth of the industry will adversely influence cetaceans’ normal activity, migration and breeding patterns. Encounters with cetaceans are therefore strongly regulated by the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations 1992 with boat distance limits set for whales and boat speed and direction-of-travel guidelines established for dolphins. The department also restricts the scale and flexibility of operations – for example, in limiting the number of swimmers in the water with dolphins at any one time. The operators take the regulations seriously and communicate their obligations and responsibilities throughout their organisations. As a practical matter they use boat propulsion units that minimise noise and prevent strikes with exposed propellers. They store rubbish and wastewater on vessels for discharge on land. And they make financial contributions to support research conducted in the Kaikōura area on whales, dolphins and seals.

While water-based opportunities for cetacean encounters are the central visitor activity in Kaikōura, their development has led to a much wider range of commercialised tourism activities in the township and its hinterland. Using fixed-wing aeroplanes and helicopters it is now possible, for example, for tourists to see whales from the air. In addition to encounters with cetaceans, the official visitor website for Kaikōura lists seventeen commercial recreational activities, ranging from aquarium visiting to walking, offered by 64 operators. These are in addition to the numerous eateries, shopping and accommodation services now available in and around the town. The effect of 30 years of successful cetacean tourism has been to stimulate the diversification of Kaikōura as a tourist destination and meet many of the aspirations of those who initiated its early development. This remains the case despite the major earthquake that hit the region on 14 November 2016, causing widespread damage to hospitality and tourism facilities. A silver lining in that cloud has been the building of a new coastal cycle path, making the most of the necessary reconstruction of the main highway that routes tourists through the town.

Cycling trails

Since the early 2000s, cycling has emerged as an increasingly important feature of tourism in New Zealand, particularly in rural areas. It has traded on the worldwide popularity of recreational cycling. The development of the mountain bike, being well suited to riding on rough surfaces, has opened up large areas of back country previously accessible only on foot. Bicycles are therefore now used by domestic and international tourists for road touring as well as for off-road sport and scenic enjoyment. Community and government have increasingly collaborated to meet, as well as encourage, demand for these pursuits, through a growing array of cycling trails of varying degrees of challenge.

New Zealand cycling trails are an experiment in expanding tourism activities and rejuvenating small rural towns. They have been developed simultaneously with multiday cycling trails in North America, Europe and Asia, particularly Japan. They also share some of the characteristics of the Department of Conservation’s Great Walks, which have long been used to attract tramping tourists to the country’s national parks. And like trampers on the Great Walks, cyclists get the opportunity to exercise strenuously while exploring new places and experiencing often spectacular scenery. In the case of trail cycling, weary riders can rest each night with local accommodation providers, where they can enjoy food, drink and the company of friends and other trail users after a day’s ride.

The potential of the trails is reinforced through the support of central government, which has included them as a major plank in its tourism and promotion budget. It has also fostered the new relationships between local communities, investors and tourism providers and consultants that are necessary for success. Beyond the obvious benefits of increased tourism earnings, cycling trails have the potential to disperse tourism activities more evenly to rural areas. The significance of the trails in government policy is evident in then Prime Minister (and, significantly, Minister of Tourism) John Key’s welcome statement to the readers of The New Zealand Cycle Trail Guide: ‘The true beauty of the trail is the unhurried, leisurely options of stop-offs along the way, allowing explorers to go at their own pace . . . In addition to providing a healthy and enjoyable way for New Zealanders and overseas visitors to experience our country, the trails help provide an economic boost for local communities.’

The current interest in cycling trails has been buoyed by the success of the Otago Central Rail Trail, which extends from Middlemarch, at the terminus of Dunedin Railway’s Taieri Gorge excursion railway line, to Clyde in the heart of Central Otago. The trail follows the right-of-way of the former rail line beyond Middlemarch, passing through wide-open, dry and scenically spectacular landscapes shaped by extensive agriculture and gold mining. In 1994, after the rails were removed, the land was ceded to the Department of Conservation rather than being transferred to adjoining rural and urban land owners, as had been the case with many earlier branch line closures. This occurred at a time when these remote parts of Central Otago were stressed economically. Advocates for the rail trail believed they could see the potential boost from tourist numbers to small rural towns along the old line, such as Ranfurly (see Chapter 11). The proposal was initially controversial with landowners, as the trail would allow tourists access to working areas of farms. The controversy was heightened by the idea’s relative novelty, prompting uncertainty as to its real economic value.

Resistance to the trail was overcome through the collaboration of the Department of Conservation and the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust. The trust was made up of local residents, some of whom had close connections to less willing landowners. Interestingly, the key tourism entrepreneur in this case was the department, a Crown entity. But while it owned the railway corridor, designated by this time as a recreation reserve, the department lacked sufficient funds to pay for the expensive infrastructural works necessary for turning a railway into a cycling trail. Extensive modifications to bridges were required, as well as the establishment of a suitable trail surface, the protection of historically significant sites and artefacts, the provision of interpretative signage, and installation of boundary Gibson Grates to allow cyclists to pass whilst discouraging stock from wandering between farms. It was the department that established the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust in order to raise the needed funds. The trust has gone on to do a much wider range of things in support of the trail and in collaboration with the department.

Particularly well-connected and hard-working individuals stand out for their contribution in this process. Les Cleveland, chair of the Otago Conservation Board and the inaugural chair of the trust, and Daphne Hull, long-time Central Otago local body politician and an inaugural and present-day trust member, played key roles in overcoming local opposition. Others had an important influence in the towns along the route. The success of the trail has very much to do with the networked contributions of individuals and agencies over 25 years, particularly the department and the trust, but also voluntary workers, small businesses and community groups. These include the Rail Trail Operators’ Group, with its focus on input from tourism operators along the trail, and Tourism Central Otago and Enterprise Dunedin for tourism promotion. The trust and international trail administrators have shared ideas about successful development, management and promotion of trails.

While many local people expressed pessimism with the project at its start in 1994, most have since been won over by the obvious success and tourism appeal of the trail. The Otago Central Rail Trail Trust reports a ‘ridership’ of 15,349 for the entire length of the trail for the year to June 2016, up from the 10,000 estimated in 2007. The report for that earlier year also estimated that a further 30,000–70,000 people rode parts of the trail. As a tourism experience, the trail is now widely recognised domestically and internationally. While access is free, the attention and traffic that it has drawn to the region has helped revitalise small hotels, cafés, restaurants and other service providers and created opportunities for new ventures such as cycle hire companies, trip organisers, shuttle services and various hospitality providers. There is a definite off season during Central Otago’s very cold winter and this poses cash-flow challenges to service providers. But for residents of the areas through which the trail passes, it has become a source of civic pride and a focus of community activities.

Gilchrist’s Store in Oturehua (2013 population, 112) on the trail in the Ida Valley is a good example of the Otago Central Rail Trail’s ability to merge the historical interests of the region with the economic benefits of tourism. The store has provided commercial services to the community since 1902 and was operated by the Gilchrist family until 1989. At that point, locals organised to keep it open and maintain it by forming an ownership trust. The current proprietors, John and Helen Hellier, lease the store and have developed it as a multifunctional operation that continues to serve the community while also providing supplies for trail users and acting as a museum. As part of their activities, John also delivers the rural post. The store is recognised as a vital part of the community, at the same time as benefiting greatly from the cycling tourism passing through town.

The success of the Otago Central Rail Trail in drawing tourists, but especially as a wider tool of regional development, has made it an attractive framework for other government-promoted tourism activities. The most prominent of these was the creation of Ngā Haerenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail, under the leadership of John Key. The original idea was mooted by participants representing local business, unions and other interests at a national Jobs Summit in 2009 and championed by Key in his role as Minister of Tourism. Initial funding of the proposal was pushed through government, pointing to the expected spin-offs of attracting tourists to areas with relatively poor tourism infrastructure. The expectation was that, with central funding and planning incentives from central government, the success of the Otago Central Rail Trail could be replicated in other regions and locations.

The proposal for Ngā Haerenga found its home and champion in the Ministry for Tourism, which budgeted $50 million over three years for developing and improving a cycling trail envisioned as extending from Kaitaia to Bluff. While such a connection did not prove feasible, the proposal can claim to have contributed to the development of nineteen new Great Trails, the number rising to 22 with the eventual inclusion of existing examples including the Otago Central Rail Trail. The Ministry of Tourism further supported the development of a customer-oriented website, which provides details on the rides themselves as well as links to local businesses (called sponsors) providing services along each trail. Similar promotion comes courtesy of an Automobile Association (AA) travel guide highlighting the trails as well as nearby attractions, amenities, food and lodgings.

The Ngā Haerenga initiative was initially ridiculed due to a slow start during which trails were still being developed, awareness of their existence was low and no evidence of job creation was available. A more recent analysis of its economic impact estimated, however, that 1.3 million riders had used the trails in 2015, being responsible for the generation of $37.4 million in direct economic benefits to local communities. During this time, an additional $30 million in funding was realised through cofunding arrangements with local councils and other organisations – further evidence of the commitment of local interests to individual trails. The most popular, in terms of estimated numbers of visits, were the Hawke’s Bay, Rimutaka and Queenstown trails.

Besides attracting government investment, the trails’ development has also encouraged nearby entrepreneurial activities. As with the case of the Otago Central Rail Trail, these are predominantly focused on food, accommodation and bicycle equipment or touring and shuttle services. A good example of a larger-scale investment is the Pureora Timber Trail Lodge that was built at the midway point of the trail of the same name, in the central North Island. The lodge involved the collaborative interests of community members and eventually funding from other domestic investors. It now provides quality accommodation that raises the desirability of the trail and encourages longer tourist stays. The trail itself, which runs over two days through forested back country and passes over eight large suspension bridges between Pureora and Ongarue, was developed through the active participation of, and collaboration among, several central North Island iwi and with the Department of Conservation.

Food and beverages

Food and drink are important elements of all tourism activities. While the objective of travel usually involves visiting sites or more active pursuits, the enjoyment of the trip often depends on good meals. It is certainly true that bad food experiences while on holiday are remembered and mentioned to friends and family back home. Food and drink are therefore integral to the success of the tourist industry, and even more so when they are part and parcel of the cultural attractions of a place. It is then that they can be a driver of tourism development and regional differentiation. Internationally, good examples include long-established regional cuisines and wine production in Tuscany and Provence, and the more recent promotion of eating and drinking in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Other opportunities include the sampling of distinctive beverages, such as whisky distilled in the various regions of Scotland, and consumption of locally sourced items including cheese, honey, oysters, scallops and tea.

New Zealand’s international reputation for quality wine production (discussed in Chapter 7) readily attracts those who wish to visit vineyards. But the lack of commonly recognised regional cuisines makes it more difficult to take advantage of tourists’ gustatory desires. As a result, food tourism remains a work in progress, and much effort is being put into positioning food more securely within tourism’s orbit. Tourism New Zealand’s approach is to suggest that ‘culinary innovation and cultural diversity has helped earn New Zealand’s reputation as an exciting fine food destination for discerning foodies’.This includes a cultural dimension, with both traditional hāngi and more recent Māori food and wine production enterprises being promoted to international tourists; for example, Māori chef Charles Royal of Rotorua, who markets wild foods under his Kinaki brand. Local media also promote local food scenes. In Wellington the Dominion Post enthusiastically reported the visits to and very positive reviews of local eating establishments by San Francisco food writer Marcia Gagliardi, ‘the Huffington Post blogger and flamboyant founder of the internationally recognised Tablehopper food review website’.

Some regional tourism organisations identify food tourism as an important and desirable aspect of their regions, drawing attention to the quality of food products from local firms and farms. Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism’s promotion of Christchurch, north, mid- and south Canterbury, for example, directs tourists toward the qualities of local produce through the identification of their farmers’ markets. There are also notable examples where the connection between wine and food has been used in regional differentiation strategies, including the wine-producing regions of Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Martinborough and nearby Greytown in the Wairarapa, and Gibbston and Bannockburn in Central Otago. But lacking clearly defined and recognised cuisines, the main emphasis of food tourism has been to promote locally available foods and the emerging reputation of local chefs and other food preparers. An example in Central Otago is the availability of merino lamb as a distinctive and local product.

The sale of food and wine in Hawke’s Bay to visitors and local people alike is a main focus of the popular farmers’ market in Hastings. The market has been a local institution since opening in 2000, and is similar to those popularised in the United States and Europe. Its focus is on locally available fresh foods, from fruits and vegetables to cheeses, meats and prepared foods. The marketability of regional foods has spawned the development of speciality food products beyond the obviously burgeoning wine sector. A good example is that of Tom and Margie Chambers, who have created a market for jams, jellies and other products from Hawke’s Bay plums under the label of The Damson Collection. Their products have been promoted by celebrity chefs, both locally at the Black Barn Vineyard restaurant and further afield through the efforts of Al Brown and Ray McVinnie; and they have collaborated with Wellington chocolatier, Bohemein Fresh Chocolates, to produce a selection of plum candies. While the farmers’ market is a good point of sale, their products are also available online.

In Marlborough the promotion of regional food is more directly linked to existing wine tourism, with a focus on eateries both at wineries and in local communities. As is the case in Hawke’s Bay, regionally produced and harvested foods, including stone-fruit and citrus, are important elements of the marketing. A stronger emphasis is, however, placed on the innovation and distinction in evidence on the menus of the region’s many restaurants, which benefit from wine tourists drawn to the worldwide reputation of Marlborough sauvignon blanc. The proprietors of these restaurants promote and market regional food products, not the least of which are the green-lipped mussels harvested from aquaculture enterprises in the Marlborough Sounds.

The profile of such food regions is also raised by local festivals. The Marlborough Wine and Food Festival has been held annually since 1984, laying claim to being the oldest in the country. As a one-day event, it attracts 8000 domestic and international participants. In addition to 50 local wineries offering tastings, 30 food stalls serve menus based on locally sourced ingredients. A more recent addition to the Marlborough tourism calendar is the ‘16 Days of Sauvignon’, timed to end on International Sauvignon Blanc Day. Daily events promote wine, food and community activities. Such examples show that food can be an important element of tourist experience in New Zealand, as part of a broader suite of activities and experiences that make travelling through the country memorable. But food faces two challenges as a focus for tourism, as it is unlikely to draw visitors to the country on its own, and the current emphasis on regional branding around food tourism lacks the more integrated promotion at the national scale that benefits New Zealand cycling trails.

Getting the best out of tourism

As long ago as 1997, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment drew attention to the fragility of the biological resources upon which tourism depends and to the potential for international visitor growth to overwhelm New Zealand’s iconic attractions and environments. This report coincided with a noticeable spurt in the growth of international visitor arrivals. Jumping forward twenty years to the present day, increasingly urgent public debate is occurring concerning the negative impacts of tourism growth in a wide range of places. These are regularly reported by the media. For example, a recent issue of the weekly national magazine the New Zealand Listener carried the headline ‘The tourism boom: “Wish you weren’t here”. Kiwis are being crowded out of iconic locations. Is there a clever solution?’

The central thrust of the debate is that, despite the many benefits of tourism for operators and some regional communities, the country’s growth in popularity may be in danger of overwhelming the very attributes that draw people here in the first place. Part of what is being called ‘overtourism’ in many parts of the world, the emerging issues in New Zealand include overcrowded attractions; inconveniently packed car parks, roads and accommodation; lack of infrastructure such as public toilets; and environmental pollution. The volatility of the environment also leads to questions of safety, with anxiety about whether many tourists are sufficiently prepared to cope with the risk of extreme weather events or the unpredictable behaviour of mountain environments, which are simultaneously scenic and dangerous. The search is on for better ways of managing tourism before either local resentments boil over or tourists’ experience of New Zealand is irreversibly damaged. Part of the solution to improving the current situation is to develop a much clearer view of the kinds of tourist and tourism that New Zealand wants. Is the country to continue to be open to all comers or should it seek to be selective, hosting tourists who provide the best value in terms of income and environmental protection.

Two other interlinked approaches are being discussed. The first is to take seriously processes of tourism planning underpinned by the principles of sustainable tourism. The argument here is that the challenges currently being faced will be lessened if tourism strategies balance high-impact promotion with active planning. In practice this means complementing the attractive print and electronic media images set under the tagline ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ with effective central and local government management of tourism nationally and regionally: thus rethinking ‘business as usual’ approaches that focus on high growth, high volume and profit maximisation. It will depend on strengthened involvement in a range of policy areas designed to support tourism development and the local authorities who are increasingly responsible for limiting and managing the negative effects of overtourism. This will include more effective resource management, transport and infrastructure provision, employment regulation and landscape protection. Tourism strategies will need to have binding and legal effect, which could occur through incorporation of tourism planning in the provisions of the Resource Management Act. The concern is that if this does not occur the quality and profitability of New Zealand’s tourism industry will likely decline.

The second strand to this sustainable tourism approach is to better manage increased levels of tourism at particular sites. There are lessons to be learned here from the management of protected natural areas, a field that is relatively well developed in jurisdictions with high levels of tourist visitation internationally. Three related moves could be useful for dealing with current pressures: levying tourism charges, ensuring access for New Zealanders to high value sites and better managing tourist activities at some sites. It is common overseas for tourists to pay taxes and higher activity or site entrance fees to publicly owned resources than are paid by locals. Such policies are also intended to select for reasonably well-off tourists and help manage visitation levels. The income derived in this way can be used to raise funds for infrastructure and local tourism planning and management. This already occurs to a limited degree, with, for example, overseas anglers paying a slightly higher licence fee to Fish & Game New Zealand than New Zealand residents. The funds raised are dedicated to the management of back country fisheries, a site of increasing tourism pressure.

While the Department of Conservation is able to levy fees for hut and campsite usage in the areas under its control, changes to the Conservation Act will be required if charging for access to the conservation estate is to become a reality in order to manage visitor numbers and provide much needed resources to pay for development and operational costs. As already occurs in North American protected natural areas, this too could involve differential rates for local people and visitors. Central government and private companies have commissioned research to examine a range of other possibilities in this area, including ways of distributing and using funds once collected. The decision to levy fees of this sort and adopt associated policies will in the end depend on political acceptance at ministerial level of the need to make significant changes to the ways tourism development is managed.

Rightly, many New Zealanders are concerned that a drive toward the commercialisation of access will ultimately lock them out of the most spectacular parts of their own country. There is also a simmering debate about the degree to which access for walkers, hunters and anglers has been limited by the purchase of back country farms by wealthy overseas and New Zealand owners. Media attention on this issue has recently focused on Hunter Valley Station among a number of other high country runs in Central Otago. Arguably, commercialisation has limited New Zealanders’ access in other respects, with once inexpensively available resources such as pāua, crayfish and Bluff oysters now out of the reach of many local people because of the high price they achieve in overseas markets and local restaurants. One possible solution, in association with restricting tourist numbers, is that at particular sites, such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a quota of New Zealand citizens could be established regardless of overseas tourist demand. This is as yet an untried approach.

The recent boom in freedom camping illustrates the need to better manage tourist activities at some sites. Increasingly, media and anecdotal stories have highlighted the challenges associated with catering for visitors whose preference is to travel the country using social media as their guide, staying at roadside lay-bys and informal campsites each night. Supported and regulated by the Freedom Camping Act 2011, this was an acceptable mode of travel and accommodation for both tourists and host communities while it remained relatively small-scale and when using mainly rented or privately owned campervans with self-contained toilets. The recent boom in a ‘down-market’ version of freedom camping with small vans and station wagons, many not self-contained, has left informal campsites overcrowded and increasingly polluted with human faeces and other detritus. Local residents have also become increasingly resistant to this form of tourism because of unsightly overcrowding. There have been reports of this from many parts of the country, including Takaka, Dunedin, Christchurch, Banks Peninsula, Central Otago, Auckland and Napier.

As a result, some sites have been ‘hardened’, with toilet blocks or Portaloos provided to cater for demand. But access to other sites has been closed off, denying freedom-camping opportunity to everyone, including domestic tourists using self-contained vehicles. It seems inevitable that if this form of travel continues to grow, the need for active management of the remaining open sites by locally employed personnel and significant investment in infrastructure will increase. It is not clear, however, where the money will come from to do this work. Despite a strong interest in developing solutions, local councils do not have the funds to do so. Together with tourism industry bodies, they contend that central government contributions to date have been far from generous, given the level of goods and services tax, or GST, generated for the public purse from tourist spending. The apparent reluctance of government to contribute significantly has been surprising given its more active involvement in the New Zealand cycle trail and in regulatory activity for cetacean tourism. A seeming lack of effective action on freedom camping is raising the question in the minds of many about whether this is a form of tourism New Zealand should be encouraging.


The examples of change, growth and diversification in New Zealand tourism in this chapter – cetacean tourism, the development of cycle trails and food tourism – illustrate how an array of high-amenity landscapes and biological resources have been harnessed to provide recreational opportunities and experiences attractive to international visitors and domestic tourists alike. This process relies on entrepreneurial private- and public-sector service and facilities providers who are constantly on the lookout for new, previously uncommercialised places, experiences and resources that can be drawn into the tourism system at a profit. These service and facilities providers attempt to create greater value for themselves and the places and communities in which they operate, by focusing on tourist expectations and preferences and meeting these with closely linked promotional and service activities. Such entrepreneurs typically build the new relationships required to establish the novel products, services and facilities that will achieve their objectives.

Novelty, however, should not be overplayed, for in each case, developments that have been new in New Zealand are often linked indirectly to similar and earlier developments overseas. This emphasises the globalised nature of tourism, and how established means of attracting visitors can be replicated in new ways and in new places. The other face of global tourism, though, is the manner in which success can devalue the biological and environmental resources on which it depends. So there are also questions about the sustainability of current modes of tourism development, and the effectiveness of tourism planning and management, particularly in places that are increasingly crowded and overstretched. Addressing these in New Zealand is a matter of some urgency. The rise of tourism to its current status has had many positive outcomes for people and places. But it is important that this success is not undermined by unimaginative thinking and an unwillingness to invest in the protection of the fragile foundations of the country’s biggest-earning export sector.

Extract from Pawson, Eric, The New Biological Economy: How New Zealanders are Creating Value from the Land, 2018, Auckland University Press, Auckland. 

Harvey C. Perkins is an Emeritus Professor in Property at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in urban and rural transformation. 

Christopher Rosin is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at Lincoln University. He is an expert in rural development. 

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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