OPINION: Wanaka airport expansion could be “own goal” for Q’town [Crux, 20/02/20]

Opinion: Mark Sinclair lives in Wanaka and is deputy chair of Wanaka Stakeholders Group Inc.  Opinions expressed in this article are his own. Crux has approached both the Queenstown and Wanaka Chambers of Commerce to invite them to supply or source a balancing opinion piece.

Following significant pushback from Queenstown residents in mid 2018, QAC and QLDC are pursuing a dual airport strategy to expand ZQN’s air noise boundary and develop a jet airport near Wanaka, at Luggate.  At first glance, it’s a great idea for Queenstown – after all, Wanaka should “share the load”.  Ultimately, we’re in this together because overtourism and accelerated growth will impact us all.  But on closer inspection, a jet airport in Wanaka could turn out to be a poisoned chalice for those living in the Wakatipu basin.

Wanaka Stakeholders Group’s Deputy Chair Mark Sinclair

Debate about the future of jet services to the Southern Lakes is raging on both sides of the Crown Range.  In Queenstown, there is ongoing significant community pushback against QAC’s airport noise boundaries expansion plans.  In Wanaka, the community has mobilised against plans for the development of a jet airport where the town’s community airport currently stands, a stone’s throw from Luggate.

Six months ago, in response to community pressure and a looming election, Mayor Boult announced “a pause” to both parts of QAC’s plan, until  “the wellbeing of the people” was brought into the conversation.  By all accounts, the community consultation has hit bad turbulence within the last week, with multiple community groups and even an elected QLDC Councillor pointing to significant failings in the process, and claiming that the impact reports will likely be biased or even predetermined.  The perception is certainly that while the process is fraught with issues, QLDC will still try to use the reports to push on with expansion in Queenstown and development in Wanaka.

Some in Queenstown have expressed relief that Wanaka might “share the burden” of jets to the Southern Lakes.  I had multiple conversations last week with people in Frankton, Shotover Country and Kelvin Peninsula, who all to some degree or other apologetically suggested that Wanaka should pick up some air traffic slack.  Everyone I spoke to was feeling exhausted by the constant intrusion of jets in their Wakatipu lives, and also expressed their frustration at the consequences of more and more people arriving into Frankton – whether it be traffic jams, concerns of overtourism or the obvious environmental impacts.  So, Wanaka, take your fair share.

Fair enough, and here’s where the irony kicks in.  Whilst a new jet airport 51 kilometres away would undoubtedly cut some slack for jet and congestion-weary Queenstown residents in the short term, it would almost certainly make matters worse for you all in the long run – and at a level most people don’t currently understand.

Brace yourself for eye-watering growth projections

In their March 2018 report commissioned by QLDC, consultancy firm MartinJenkins (yes, you have heard that name many times this week) concluded that “infrastructure investment is needed to maintain Queenstown’s international visitor experience and sustain tourism growth.”  The title of the report “Sustaining Tourism Growth in Queenstown” should have been accompanied by a spoiler alert.  Given these conclusions two years ago, it is likely that the Council’s reports MartinJenkins are working on now will again point the compass toward the growth curve in tourist numbers and extol their value to regional and national economies. Hence claims that Martin Jenkins can’t provide objective impact assessments on airport growth – their natural lens is growth-oriented.

Their 2018 Tourism Growth report paints Queenstown as the country’s honeypot of tourism, claiming that people who visit Queenstown are likely to then visit other parts of New Zealand, and spend money there.  So for the benefit of tourism businesses, those who benefit indirectly from tourists and the country as a whole, MartinJenkins recommends sustained growth in Queenstown tourism, fuelled by stronger infrastructure, including transport networks, and of course including airport upgrades.  Hmmm … what was that about possible predetermination?

QAC’s own growth projections found in its 2017 Queenstown Airport 30 Year Master Plan Options report paint a breath-taking picture of tourism growth. In five years from now, QAC is projecting that we’ll have 3.2 million passenger movements into Queenstown (currently 2.4 million).  And two decades later, in 2045, 7.1 million air passenger movements into the Queenstown Lakes District.  Put another way, that’s almost three times as many flights as Queenstown now accommodates.  QAC’s CEO, Colin Keel, recently confirmed that Queenstown Airport’s growth is “slightly ahead of these projections”, so growth may even be faster than this.

What do these numbers actually mean?

QAC has recently acknowledged that 7.1 million passenger movements through Queenstown Airport might be unsustainable and proposed that 5 million passenger movements a year could strike a sustainable balance for Queenstown. But that was when they were just looking at Queenstown Airport by itself as the gateway to the Queenstown Lakes District.

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