Tourism – the risks and opportunities for Conservation

  • Chris Carter

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Conservation in New Zealand has never been so important.

As a social movement it is more robust than it has ever been. The area of conservation land is larger than it has ever been, the government has invested more money in conservation than ever before, more work is underway to save our most beautiful endangered species than ever before, and the public is visiting conservation land more often than in the past.

In fact, last year there were an estimated 33 million individual visits to conservation areas around the country, up from 28 million in 2002.

From this use are flowing enormous social and economic benefits, and these benefits are being felt in regions and communities, not just in cities.

Tourism has had a key part to play in this success. It has proved the primary means by which the economic as well as social potential of conservation land has been demonstrated to communities.

This in turn has enhanced community support for conservation, and added to the arguments for further conservation. It has enabled the government to invest more money in conservation, notably the $349m being invested in huts and tracks.

But with tourism's many benefits come some issues for conservation management. Some of these are being magnified by the rapid growth in international visitors to New Zealand, and the rapidly changing way visitors, New Zealanders and otherwise, are using conservation land.

Broadly speaking, issues centre on the management of tourism impacts, particularly on the environment, native species, recreation opportunities, and the expectations of New Zealanders.

Conservation is essentially a management system similar to resource management but with one crucial difference: where resource management balances the needs of the environment, society and the economy, conservation management does not.

On conservation land the needs of the environment, native species, and the recreation opportunities of the public, are generally placed ahead of all other priorities.

Some prehistoric commentators and politicians regard this inverted emphasis as precluding economic use. The reality is economic activity can and does take place on conservation land, but is necessarily subservient to the needs of the environment.

In a conservation management system, tourism has a tricky status because it can be both an economic activity and a recreation activity. The Conservation Act demands that the Department of Conservation (DOC), foster recreation and allow for tourism, but the two are not always clearly distinct and some times in conflict.

The issues tourism creates on conservation land are well worn and most stark around a handful of key destinations. You will know them all: Milford, the West Coast glaciers, Tongariro, and the Abel Tasman.

Visitor numbers to these areas are huge, and the variety of tourism activities operating in and around these areas is also huge. Too many people at a particular location impacts on the environment, and the public's experience of it. These impacts have to be managed, and there are essentially only two ways of doing this.

Firstly, you can upgrade areas to enable them to withstand greater numbers of people. An obvious example is improving sewerage systems so they don't overflow and pollute waterways. These upgrades are resource dependent, and they are also finite. You can't do too many of them without altering the entire character of an area.

Secondly, you can manage access. This has occurred on a variety of Great Walks around the country where the need for hut bookings limits numbers of visitors. DOC is also currently in discussion with the tourism industry over efforts to restrict the number of flights over Milford Sound where there is a take off and landing every two minutes in summer.

Managing access has two side effects. It obviously impinges on the public's ability to readily see an area, but it also displaces visitors and tourism activity into new areas where infrastructure may not be prepared for them, and where they may have impacts on existing recreation users in those areas.

The conundrum is this displacement can happen anyway even without restrictions. Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean.

The Abel Tasman track has been crowded for many years over the summer months. This has put off a proportion of visitors who in recent years have started travelling a few hours northeast to the Queen Charlotte Walkway. That track is now receiving 30,000 visitors a year, which is fantastic. Its great for the Picton and Blenheim economies, but it has left DOC managing the rise in numbers on the Queen Charlotte while at the same time continuing to manage the long standing issues at Abel Tasman.

A further issue tourism creates for conservation management lies with New Zealand's traditional recreation groups. Tramping and fishing clubs, which are important stakeholders in conservation, have grave concerns about tourism because they see tourists damaging their experience of and access to the Great Outdoors.

There are occasional calls from these groups to either charge overseas visitors for access to conservation land, prevent tourism activity in certain areas, or provide New Zealanders with preferential treatment.

The Government is not enthusiastic about these ideas for a host of reasons. We don't believe charging tourists is going to stop them coming to conservation areas or fishing spots, nor will it solve the core problem of crowding.

So what can we do about the issues I've described?

The answer is we can do a great deal.

We can invest more to improve huts, tracks, campsites and toilets to cope with greater numbers of people. Hence, the $349 million package I mentioned earlier.

We can invest more to open up new conservation areas so there are more recreation opportunities to go around larger numbers of people. Hence the purchases I have made throughout South Island High Country, such as Birchwood Station.

And we can seek to improve the management of visitor impacts on conservation land at a national level as well as a local one.

We have in place an effective system of management plans for conservation areas at a local level around the country. These plans are developed in consultation with the public, and guide DOC in what commercial activities they can permit in particular areas, and thus what concessions can be granted to tourism operators.

Sure, these plans provoke a few scraps but by and large they work.

If I see a failing in the way the impact of tourism growth on conservation has been managed up until now, it is that there has been insufficient thinking about what national decisions can be made to help alleviate visitor impacts at certain sites.

Some of this thinking began with the development of the Tourism Strategy when the Labour government came to power, but the Minister of Tourism, Mark Burton, and I have sought to stimulate a lot more of it recently. We have required greater co-operation between the DOC and the Tourism industry.

For a year now, Mark and I have met regularly to discuss issues of mutual concern. The chief executives of DOC and the Tourism Ministry have also met regularly, and recently we formed a Tourism Industry Forum that has met three times, and pulls together a whole host of non-government organisations with an interest in conservation and tourism.

From this co-operation a number of new initiatives are developing.

First, we are tentatively exploring ways of encouraging the tourism and visitor load away from the usual handful of established destinations and into new, exciting areas that are comfortably capable of absorbing more people. This is unlikely to greatly alter the numbers of people going to Milford today but what it may do is divert some of the predicted growth in visitor numbers tomorrow.

A unique opportunity exists to spread the load of visitors because the Tourism Board is actively trying to attract a more independent traveller to New Zealand. These tourists stay longer and travel more broadly than just the usual stopovers.

Some spreading of tourism's impacts is inevitable even if government did nothing. What we are looking at is whether we can be proactive about subtly influencing where tourists spread rather than simply responding after the fact.

DOC and the Ministry of Tourism will shortly deliver Mark Burton and I a Christmas present – a report exploring how effective the marketing of destinations may be as a tool to manage visitor flows.

Essentially this report, which has been written by a working group of officials and industry representatives, will ask can we alter what destinations people go to on conservation land, and when, by marketing them in a different way?

I can't answer that question until I have seen the report. But what I can say is, at the very least, it will mark the start of some interesting discussion. The government won't be making any rushed decisions in this area; we will be exploring ideas carefully and sensibly.

The second area of national work is one where progress has been more rapid: the standardising of systems for assessing and managing visitor impacts.

It became apparent when DOC and the Tourism Ministry got around the table in a serious way that they were working from different statistical bases when assessing visitor flows. A process has been initiated to align and integrate statistical processes so everyone is singing from the same song sheet.

This year, we will be collecting the most comprehensive set of information we have ever had on the level of use of particular sights and the satisfaction of people using them. Some 124 representative tracks throughout the country will have visitor counters.

In addition, we are developing plans for a consistent and agreed upon national toolkit to measure the social, physical and ecological impact of visitors.

The idea is this toolkit can be applied by tourism operators and DOC all over the country. Combined with more information gathering, it should give a more complete picture of where we have problems and where they are just developing.

A similar toolkit, funded by the Minister of Tourism, is also under development to help tourism concessionaires educate their clients about New Zealand's special features, conservation issues and minimum impact techniques for visiting natural areas.

By proving tourism operators with what will essentially be a staff training resource to boost the quality of the product they offer to their client, we are seeking to harness the potential of tourism operators to become important advocates for natural heritage and conservation.

I have been impressed by the willingness of the tourism industry to embrace the needs of conservation.

There are a growing number of concessionaires who are actively giving back to help maintain the environments they profit from. Real Journeys, Queenstown Rafting, THL, Shotover Jet, and the Arthur's Pass Wilderness Lodge are all sponsoring conservation programmes around the country.

In response, the DOC has been listening to the industry. In conjunction with concessionaires, and recreation groups we have overhauled the national policy approach to the granting of concessions.

An extensive review has taken place out of which a new way of processing concessions and improving the monitoring of them has been developed. We hope to implement this new system over the next three years.

The system is reliant upon management plans for individual conservation areas becoming much more explicit about what types of activities will be permitted in particular areas, and what won't.

Ultimately, a proposal for a guided walking operation on a clearly defined, well-built track should be processed up to 50 per cent faster in future.

This is obviously beneficial to the tourism industry but it is similarly beneficial to DOC because the less time it spends on bureaucracy, the more resources it has to monitor the impact of concessions, and compliance with conditions upon them.

A frequent gripe from concessionaires has been that DOC hasn't spent enough time stamping on people operating commercial businesses in conservation areas without a legal concession. This isn't a level playfield, it isn't good for the environment, and it needed to change.

It has.

As I hope you can see from what I have just described, there are issues tourism creates for conservation management, but I don't believe they are in any way insurmountable.

Conservation does not preclude economic use but it does control it. We are pressing forward with some basic innovations to improve ways of doing this, but we are also doing some high level thinking about longstanding issues with visitor numbers at certain hotspots.

I'd love the opportunity to come back and update you on where some of this thinking has got to in six months time.

Thank you.