Is the view from the top of Mount Tongariro just as special if you’re sharing it, elbow to elbow, with thousands of other people?
When Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton released his second report into tourism’s environmental effects this week, the “wildness and quiet” of conservation land was a key issue.
“A sense of wildness and natural quiet are defining characteristics of New Zealand’s conservation lands and waters,” his report reads. “For many people, encountering these qualities is the main motivation for visiting a natural area.”
But national parks have been under growing pressure from overcrowding – 1.8 million people visited at least one national park during 2019 – a problem expected to return worse than ever as Covid-19 is brought under control worldwide.
* Enough talk – time for action on tourism’s environmental impact, says commissioner
* Time for tourism to pay for its environmental damage, says commissioner
* Queenstown’s backdrop may become new national park as DOC reviews Remarkables land
* Five ways tourism in New Zealand could become more sustainable
The answer from Government so far, Upton said, had been to build infrastructure to increase carrying capacity. But increasing supply often increased demand.
Whether it be walks, huts, or scenic flights, a combination of concessions, bookings, and first-in-first-served policies could be used to limit visitors.
DOC director of heritage and visitors Steve Taylor said, as well as booking systems, the department was already using measures like limiting car parking, higher prices at peak times, and halting promotion on locations at capacity to try and stem numbers.
But president of the Federated Mountain Clubs Jan Finlayson said the best filter should be nature itself. “You don’t get many people where it’s hard to get to.”
DOC does not have to promote activity on conservation land. Under the Conservation Act, it must simply “allow for” tourism’s use of natural and historic resources. Recreation should only be fostered if consistent with conservation goals.
According to the report, DOC’s response when it came to tourism demands “gives the impression that it is an industry whose demands it feels obligated to accommodate.” In 2013, 60 extra helicopter landings were permitted per day on Franz Josef Glacier, as foot access was becoming unsafe.
Finlayson said measures like making more huts bookable, increasing the accessibility of trails, and charging for entry made the wilderness feel like a motel. “The principle of basic worth is broken by the domestication of wilderness.”
Fees and bookings also created exclusivity. One of the joys of our national parks, she said, was that all people were equal in nature – “it doesn’t matter what car you left in the carpark.”
The answer could be to limit visitors to fewer areas. “You should be able to have a national park experience on the boundary of a national park,” Finlayson said.
Former DOC senior manager and author Les Molloy agreed. “Don’t make it too easy. Wilderness by definition requires some effort or skill level.”
DOC were under huge pressure to accommodate the tourism industry, he said, which had a good number of “growth maniacs” who were more focussed on getting “bums on seats”. It was time people paid for the privilege.
Kiwis paid twice, he said, in taxes and in hut fees. There was no shame in asking for international tourists and businesses who benefited from them to pay a bit more.
There was one thing on which everyone agreed on; with the lull in international tourists, it was the perfect time to put in place new rules to protect what we held dear.