2016 Eric Pyle on Daltons Track Marlborough

Can outdoor access and tourism go hand in hand?

Can our outdoor access network grow in step with visitor numbers? NZWAC chief executive Eric Pyle takes a look at the path ahead.

Tourism has featured prominently in the media in the past few months, with much of the coverage focusing on crowding at popular New Zealand destinations and the infrastructure needed to support an influx of visitors.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number international visitors coming to New Zealand was relatively stable. But since 2012, annual international visitor arrivals have grown from around 1.25 million to 1.5 million. The number of New Zealanders hitting the track to enjoy their own backyard has also increased.

These rising numbers put pressure on our existing infrastructure and create significant demand for new car parks, toilets, signage, and entirely new tracks and trails to help spread the visitor load.

Increasing use of the outdoors has a definite impact on people’s ability to access and enjoy it, and it’s important that we don’t lose one of our country’s greatest assets – access to the outdoors. In the past year or so, significant access has been curtailed in some parts of the country due to tourism-related pressures. Access has been limited at Mt Alfred at the head of Lake Wakatipu, swimming at Blue Springs in South Waikato has been prohibited due to the environmental impacts of visitors and access to Whitecliffs Walkway in Taranaki is currently closed, to name a few examples.

Access is also under pressure at a number of other sites, including Sawcut Gorge in Marlborough and Roys Peak in Wanaka. Often, the existing infrastructure can’t cater to the growing number of tourists passing through.

The government is forecasting that there will be 2.5 million tourists visiting New Zealand in 2022. Given the current situation and its challenges, how will we manage further increases in tourist arrivals?

Managing access is key. Imagine Queenstown without access to the outdoors – no access to the Routeburn Track, the Remarkables and other landmark sites. Imagine the economy of Central Otago towns without the Otago Rail Trail.

Some are trying to address the issue. The cycle trails initiative is the first coordinated, government-led approach to securing access and creating trails in decades. This initiative, fantastic as it is, is just one aspect of what’s needed – a holistic approach towards access. Without a coordinated approach, we will struggle to cope with rising tourism. And this will have a restricting impact on the industry’s social licence to operate.

Multiple factors are driving the increase in tourist numbers at specific destinations. Social media is one of them. In Wanaka, a photograph of a sunrise viewed from Roy’s Peak and posted on the internet drew many more tourists to the site. Sawcut Gorge was similarly made famous via social media.

How are government agencies and industry responding to the challenge? Industry is proposing a tourism infrastructure fund via a “tourist tax”. Conservation boards are talking about reviewing national park management plans together, rather than separately.

But can a tourism infrastructure fund, operating reactively in isolation of a broader strategic approach, really keep up with providing infrastructure for an industry whose trends can vary in accordance to what gets posted on social media? Do tourists really care whether they are in a national park or on a cycleway or walkway on a mixture of private and public land?

The preparation and implementation of national park management plans can take years, whereas we often need management tools and planning procedures that can respond and adapt to change over shorter periods of time. We need to be on our toes, and to shift our focus to what really matters, when it matters.

We need to think through how we plan for tourism and how we influence tourist behaviour. Are there areas in New Zealand where we would rather tourist numbers were kept low, because the cost of associated infrastructure might be too high? Where should we be thinking about creating and managing access?

A single photo on a tourism organisation’s website can influence visitor numbers, which then leads to infrastructure providers playing catch up. Can the relevant agencies get ahead of the game and influence the patterns of tourist numbers in New Zealand, thus getting a better match between demand for and supply of tourist infrastructure?

Access underpins the tourist industry, whether it relates to the creation of new trails, informing tourists where they can access the outdoors, or influencing their choices.

We need a coordinated and integrated plan for creating and proactively managing access to the outdoors. The cycle trail initiative is a step in the right direction. But a more comprehensive approach is needed, involving government and industry, and access to the outdoors needs to be at the heart of the debate.