Tourism is noted as New Zealand's top export earner and the cornerstone of its economy. It sustains and grows local communities and reportedly employs one in seven New Zealanders, according to Tourism New Zealand. Many locals consider this sword to be double edged, noting the accumulated waste, erosion of land and consumption of fossil fuels from tourism that put the country’s land, one of its greatest assets, at risk.
The Wanaka Stakeholders Group (WSG), a group opposed to the ‘lack of consultation over plans to expand Wanaka Airport to bring in jets,’ expressed their concerns to the threat of 'overtourism' to NZ's premier tourist regions. They pointed out why ‘building a second jet-capable airport in the region is complete madness’ after noting Queenstown’s recent placement within CNN Travel’s global list of popular tourist locations that currently are plagued by 'overtourism' in today’s modern era of travel.
“It we allow Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC) to go ahead with their plan for a dual airport in Wanaka, that will open the floodgates, at least doubling the number of passengers capable of flying directly into the [Queenstown] Lakes region,” said WSG chair Michael Ross. “Once that happens, we will lose control over our beautiful spaces, our quality of life, our environment and our communities.”
Queenstown reportedly received 3.3 million visitors last year. NZ Government indicates visitor arrivals to the country are expected to grow four percent a year, reaching 5.1 million visitors in 2025, up from 3.9 million in the March 2018 year.
“If Queenstown is already on the list of places whose reputation is perhaps now tarnished, why would we want QAC to be planning to triple numbers into the region? We expect some growth, but it's crucial that we can understand what the opportunity is and are able to plan our infrastructure to support it,” said Ross. “[Queenstown Lakes District Council has] recently passed a climate change resolution. How does an airport development fit with this? What does the corporation mean when they talk about sustainability?”
ONE New Zealand’s Monique Kelly said, “Exponential growth puts pressure on our infrastructure, increases community visitor ‘fatigue’ and impacts on our ability to deal with reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. By 2030, we will have to halve our greenhouse gas emissions if we want to reach zero net emissions by 2050," she said. "Exponentially increasing visitor numbers is incompatible with hitting our legal emissions targets under the future Carbon Zero Act and our international obligations."
She added, “As tourism is such an essential part of our economy and community, we need to change the yardstick. Instead of continually striving for greater numbers, we need to look at different metrics…”
Kelly said it is about finding the ‘sweet spot’ in visitor numbers the environment and community can comfortably manage. “How we define this sweet spot and manage fluctuations has to be a collaborative effort...from everyone in the tourism ecosystem...as well as central and local government, the community and environmental advocates," she said. "This needs to be backed up with coherent, sound policy decisions that are made on the basis of our emissions targets.”
Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA) chief executive Chris Roberts pointed to TIA’s Tourism Sustainability Commitment, in which more than 1,200 national businesses have now enrolled. “TIA strongly encourages every region to run a robust process to develop a Destination Management Plan, to guide a destination’s future over the next 10 to 30 years,” said Roberts. “In particular, with regard to how people travel to and around the area, TIA believes the planning approach must encompass the wider region. The roading network, cruise ports, public transport, cycle ways, all of the airports large and small (e.g. Queenstown, Dunedin, Invercargill, Wanaka, Milford, Te Anau, Stewart Island) must be considered," he said. "What does the optimal transport network look like in 30 years’ time? One thing is certain: there will be change."
Roberts predicted NZ’s population will be significantly greater than five million people in 30 years’ time and pointed to the likelihood of international visitor numbers soaring higher than the current 3.9 million pax. "We have to prepare for change, based on a sound understanding of what our communities want in their future. TIA encourages ongoing engagement in your community on these issues," he said.
“Crucial to this are destination masterplanning and community consultation,” said Ross. “We see little evidence of either of these in QAC's plan for 7.1 million pax movements to the region, three times what we have today. It's a recipe for social and environmental disaster.”