Worried about overtourism in Wanaka? You should be.

With visitor numbers surging and infrastructure problems on the rise, commentators and experts are wondering if we Kiwis have been “asleep at the wheel”. The issue of overtourism is one which we – and our children – must carefully navigate. And we have to start now.

In recent years, Wanaka has surged ahead as a tourist destination. Once the quiet sibling to Queenstown, it is now seen as a “must visit” destination in its own right. We welcome visitors here with open arms to share our hospitality and enjoy the stunning surroundings we are so lucky to call home. Many of us are involved in businesses which benefit from the growth in visitors – which is obviously great for the local economy. But is this sustainable, and can we keep offering visitors what they come here for?

Wanaka is recognised as a “must visit” destination – it has made numerous lists of top global hotspots to visit, and has become an Instagram sensation.

We are beginning to see some cracks appearing. Tens of thousands of people climb Roy’s Peak each year, and at times the parked cars spill out onto the road to Glendhu. There are issues throughout Upper Clutha with freedom camping, car parking spaces and public toilets – we’re all familiar with what’s going wrong.

The number of people going to the Blue Pools near Makarora has risen from 3,400 to more than 100,000 in just three years.

“Too Many Tourists?”, North & South Magazine, August 2019

But it doesn’t stop there. We’re beginning to see traffic congestion at levels we’ve only previously experienced on peak days in Wanaka, and it’s clear that it will get worse. There is not enough accommodation – to the point where some people working in our town are sleeping in cars. Our waterways are becoming polluted, and stormwater management is an issue – our local ecosystem is under stress. Water and sewerage treatment is maxed out. There are issues with road access for the fire service and ambulances in subdivisions. The list goes on.

We have clear and significant infrastructure problems. QLDC is struggling with all of this, and we can barely cope with the rapidly increasing visitor numbers already coming to Wanaka.

Wanaka is already growing rapidly without any more flights bringing tourists to our doorstep. The residential growth alone is predicted to almost double the population of Wanaka ward by 2048, and almost double the number of average day visitors by that time.

Increasing inbound numbers, with a new jet airport

So does it make sense to encourage thousands – tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands more people to spend time here by developing our airport to cater for regular jets? How is that going to work? How on earth can we expect QLDC to be in a position to cope with infrastructure strain caused by supercharged growth, fuelled by jet services?

The suggested development of Wanaka Airport to be jet capable, including international flights, would open the floodgates to huge numbers of additional visitors. QAC has made it clear that growth and profitability are sharply in focus – and that means throughput of jets – which means lots and lots more people arriving on our doorstep.

Queenstown airport is set to grow, but there are limits on how much more growth it can handle. So now plans are afoot to build something bigger – which will ultimately have greater throughput of passengers – in Wanaka.

Currently Queenstown Airport hosts just over 2 million passenger movements per annum. By 2035 QAC is projecting Wanaka and Queenstown Airports will be servicing 6 million combined international and domestic passenger movements annually. Rising to 7.1 million passengers by 2045. Those numbers are very, very worrying.

Overtourism is real, and there is no doubt we’re in danger of experiencing it right here in our backyard. Are we ready for this? Is this what we want? Do we want volume (of visitors) over quality and sustainable numbers?

Wanaka resident Andrew Waterworth recently wrote an in depth analysis of the issue of overtourism in Wanaka – it is well worth a read if you need to understand the complexity – and reality – of the issues we are facing.

The recent QLDC referendum on the visitor “bed tax” plus QLDC’s application to spill raw sewerage into our lakes and waterways are both signs that our region is already not coping. Our Mayor even admits that we’re out of our depth.

“Yes, we have been caught behind the eight ball,” admits Queenstown mayor Jim Boult about the town not keeping up with tourist numbers. “You can’t create infrastructure for 40,000 people and stuff another 90,000 people in and hope it all works, because it doesn’t.”


But at the same time as flagging that there’s a problem, we’re on the brink of inviting millions more people to visit us. It’s ironic that on the very day that QLDC declared a climate emergency in our region, Councillors were asked to accept a “statement of intent” (effectively, a plan – high level guidelines and a licence to get moving) from Queenstown Airport Corporation to supercharge development of Wanaka Airport. Understandably, Councillors found it difficult to push the SOI through that day.

Looking beyond Wanaka for perspective

To suggest that Wanaka might struggle under the strain of overtourism is not being NIMBY (“not in my back yard”). Far from it. Much more established tourist destinations have in very recent years admitted that they are struggling with, or even defeated by, overtourism. Wanaka is experiencing the kind of growth they did.

Overtourism is widely acknowledged as a growing global problem, with some of the best known examples being Paris, Venice, and many parts of Italy. But it seems that as air travel continues to grow, overtourism is spreading like wildfire. More recent examples include the following:

For more information about specific destinations and also commentary about the global phenomenon of overtourism, visit our library of content on the subject. We’ll keep updating it.

New Zealand – and Wanaka – in the spotlight

New Zealand is now regarded as being at risk of significant overtourism issues. We were recently included on a global map of places suffering overtourism. And there are questions as to how this is affecting our brand image. Just as worrying is the question of what overtourism will do to the communities tourists like to visit.

There is also increasing focus on the negatives emerging in Wanaka. Including various articles like this one: Roy’s Peak: Photo shows the reality behind ‘New Zealand’s most Instagrammed hike’. Perhaps not the image of Wanaka we want the world to see – or visitors to experience.

Mainstream media are sharing images like this (taken by a tourist and first shared on instagram), citing our overtourism problems, and claiming that New Zealand is losing its edge. They might very well have a point.

The August 2019 edition of North & South magazine focusses on overtourism – including in the Queenstown lakes area – and claims that New Zealanders have been “asleep at the wheel”. The article doesn’t even touch on the development of Wanaka Airport – development which will likely see us having an airport bigger than Queenstown’s within 15 years. This will not be the first major publication to lead with a feature on overtourism in Aotearoa. And increasingly, Wanaka will be in the spotlight.

Queenstown is cited as having major overtourism blues – with all of the associated problems. Locals are often quoted as hating what Queenstown has become – and many are deciding to move away. Its little sibling across the Crown Range faces a similar future if we’re not careful.

Overtourism, sustainability, infrastructure, brand, perception, environment: these are the issues we need to be discussing locally. Decisions about Wanaka’s future should be made with full involvement from the community. We only get one chance to get this right – and we’ve just about missed the boat.

To be part of the conversation about overtourism, and to push QLDC and QAC for proper community consultation around key decisions regarding any development of Wanaka Airport, join the Wanaka Stakeholders Group member base. It’s free and takes 30 seconds.

Please also share with family, friends and housemates. We need to send a clear signal that the community wants this done properly.

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