New Zealand’s threat of over-tourism seen in Wanaka’s proposed second airport [Sunday Star Times, 19/01/20]

The following article appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Star Times – it is written by WSG member and long-term Wanaka resident, Meg Taylor, and is reproduced here in full. You can also see it on Stuff here.

Meg Taylor, merino farmer in Wanaka, and former Kathmandu co-founder, says New Zealand – and Wanaka in particular – risk overtourism.

OPINION:  When people tell you that they’ve just discovered an unspoilt paradise, what they really mean is they’ve just spoilt an undiscovered paradise. I read this in an online travel forum some time ago, and it rings very true. 

Tourism has many benefits. It encourages cultural experiences, a broader view of the planet and spreads new ideas from new places. It can protect, for example World Wildlife Fund’s advocacy of wildlife tourism. Tourism ventures diversify high country land-use and provide an alternative to mining or forestry economies. But one of the troubles with tourism and global mobility is the exponentially increasing numbers. 

Issues confronting overseas destinations are becoming problems for our tourist hot-spots in New Zealand: rubbish, how to pay for infrastructuretoiletsfreedom camping, crowds, parking, accommodation for workers, lack of long-term rentals, reduced local ambience and more bars and generic souvenir shops, debates about rising property rates or tourism levies, and the high cost of living for low wage earners. Another kind of pressure comes from investors perceiving opportunities to develop amenities on a grand scale: a casino, new retail hub, an airport or cruise ship harbour.

Many or most of us came to my hometown of Wanaka first as tourists. It took little more than two visits, tramping and skiing, for my husband and I to move here from our Melbourne base in the mid 90s.

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Instagram-worthy Roy's Peak, in Wanaka, where tourists arrive without courtesy of a second jet capable airport.
Instagram-worthy Roy’s Peak, in Wanaka, where tourists arrive without courtesy of a second jet capable airport. Photo: Supplied

The town was small; no supermarket, one or two good cafes, no cinema, but magically beautiful, with a vibrant welcoming community. Fast forward 24 years, living in a tourist town gives Wanaka many more shops, businesses and services, an international workforce, medical centre, adventure activities and trails. Our ski fields would not exist without tourism.

But the resident population has risen seven-fold to 12,320 and when you add holiday-home owners and tourists it is now a sizeable town. Council visitor projections for Wanaka ward in 2018 were 34,450 daily at peak. Local conversations suddenly seem to revolve around parking.

The big drawcard is Wanaka’s natural beauty, its geography and climate that enables winter and summer sports. It is a “goldilocks” town: not too little, not too big, just right. But there are clear growth-related issues which concern many locals, a feeling that we are being driven by growth rather than managing ourselves as a destination.

The UN World Tourism Organisation has put international tourist arrivals worldwide at 1.4 billion. Tourism is the world’s third largest export category after chemicals and fuels, and ahead of automotive products and food. Locally, a pre-Christmas report to Parliament predicts New Zealand visitor numbers will double or triple by 2050.

Airport growth reflects this. The world’s busiest airports are growing anywhere up to 70 per cent and while airport promoters talk in terms of building local infrastructure to cater for local or business demand, it is not local demand that drives airports. In 2018, 56 per cent of all global travel was for leisure. Business was 13 per cent; health, religion, visiting friends and family were 27 per cent.

Queenstown Lakes District Council and Queenstown Airport Corporation are moving forward with plans for a second jet-capable airport in the Southern Lakes, in Wanaka, less than an hour’s drive from Queenstown’s existing international airport. This airport will not be developed for the sake of residents or local businesses, it will cater overwhelmingly for tourists.

If you look for comparable new airport developments in key tourist hot spots around the world you find that the latest examples tend to be in developing third world countries; Peru (Machu Picchu​), Vietnam (Ha Long Bay) and Thailand (Ko Pha Ngan island, next to Ko Samui​.) These are low wage/high population economies that are under huge pressure to grow the tourism dollar. But in Europe and America, and to some extent in Australia, resort towns are increasingly more selective about the kind of development they will accept and more focussed on managing growth than driving it.

An animation of the proposed jet capable Wanaka airport.
An animation of the proposed jet capable Wanaka airport.

All of the above destinations had become world famous tourism hotspots without the benefit of an airport on their doorstep. None of them are especially inaccessible, but like Wanaka they require a bit of extra effort to access.

Tourists fly in to Cusco, Peru, and then take a three hour 30 minute train trip to Machu Pichu (an airport is now being built nearby). World Heritage Ha Long Bay was previously reached by a four hour road trip. Ko Samui became a hippy paradise when it was only accessible by ferry and its neighbour Ko Pha Ngan has become the preferred destination of many travellers precisely because it does not yet have an airport.

We are told that we should feel grateful to airports for supplying us with customers and tourism growth. In fact it is Queenstown and Wanaka and their many attractions that supply our local airport with customers. Today’s is a global tourist world and outstandingly beautiful small towns with a plethora of activities on offer do not need a high level of “connectivity”, as council planners would call it, to attract high numbers of tourists.

The steep two-three hour slog up to the top of Wanaka’s social media sensation Roy’s Peak deters very few people and attracts thousands of Instagram photos. Access is not the issue. Wanaka doesn’t need an airport to achieve economic tourist numbers and we don’t need an airport to grow or ensure genuinely sustainable tourism and development in our town.

Once you put a jet capable airport into a town, it does not merely support growth, it accelerates and turbo-charges it. A recent EU study into the drivers of over-tourism in Europe identifies a high proportion of AirBnb accommodation, share of tourism contribution, air travel intensity (arrivals by air divided by the number of residents) and closeness to airports, cruise ports and World Heritage Sites.

Meg Taylor, merino farmer in Wanaka, and former Kathmandu co-founder, says New Zealand - and Wanaka in particular - risk overtourism.
Meg Taylor, merino farmer in Wanaka, and former Kathmandu co-founder, says New Zealand – and Wanaka in particular – risk overtourism.

The first question in a checklist for city officials in danger from over tourism is: “Is your destination less than 30km from an airport?” Large scale airports encourage “fast-tourism”, which like fast-food is cheap, low value and uniform. Putting a jet-capable airport into Wanaka is a bit like building a big cruise-ship terminal.

If you are living in a part of the world that is still small, gorgeously beautiful and relatively uncrowded, as many New Zealanders are, then be aware that you are living in an incredibly rare and special place. Not many of the world’s beautiful places are still like this.

We can join Peru, Vietnam and Thailand and build an airport bang in the middle of one of New Zealand’s most attractive tourist destinations or we can take on board the lessons of Dubrovnik, Venice, Lake Tahoe, Jackson Hole, Vail, Whistler, Telluride, some of the Greek Islands, Bhutan, and start protecting our future.

There are regular attempts to label critics of Queenstown Airport Corporation control and development plans for Wanaka Airport as anti-growth, anti-tourism, anti-development and backward-looking. To me protecting Wanaka is not just valuing our own lifestyle and environment, it is also recognising the best use of this unique asset that is the basis for all future tourism and development.

Wanaka War Memorial, overlooking Wanaka.
Wanaka War Memorial, overlooking Wanaka. Photo: Mark Sinclair

What is the point of bringing in a “bed tax” to subsidise the infrastructural demands created by tourism whilst at the same time installing a second $400 million dollar airport which will exponentially boost tourism growth?

Tourism competes alongside agriculture as one of our biggest exports and Wanaka exemplifies what many people come to New Zealand to see. But we must learn from overseas experiences. New Zealand’s tourist destinations need to manage and protect what we have. Wanaka is not a third world country, we are not desperate for development and we need to have a little more confidence that what we have is unique and we don’t need to squander our attraction as a destination.

As Mark Twain said about investment, “buy land, they’re not making it any more.” Equally they’re not making any more special unspoilt beautiful landscapes. The world is fully discovered.

Meg Taylor is a merino farmer in Wanaka, previously a lodge operator and co-owner of Kathmandu.

– Sunday Star Times Jan 19 2020

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