Being able to enjoy the great outdoors lies at the heart of the New Zealand story, says Eric Pyle. He calls for a coordinated and strategic approach to managing and developing access to the outdoors.
Imagine Queenstown without access to its spectacular outdoors. It is not an image any of us can easily conjure up, nor is it a happy one. Few places in New Zealand offer quite as many magical spots, from dramatic gorges and mountain peaks to mesmerising lakes and national parks.
Access to outdoor destinations around the country is deeply important to us. It is also one of the pillars of our tourism industry. Addressing New Zealand’s most pressing local tourism infrastructure needs, a recent report prepared by key players in that sector including Air New Zealand, went some way – though not far enough – towards acknowledging the importance of outdoor access for tourism.
People travel great distances to access the fantastic outdoors we New Zealanders have on our doorstep, and proper management of our outdoor access infrastructure is essential to balance the economic benefits of tourism with our cherished wilderness experiences. Currently, ease of access to our natural heritage is being impacted as a consequence of the growth in international and domestic visitor numbers. Local communities are feeling the strain.
Take Queenstown. Each year, close to three million people are drawn to the town and its surroundings. When you consider that the Queenstown Lakes District has an estimated resident population of 34,700, as of June 2016, you begin to get a sense of the logistical challenges involved in hosting such large numbers of visitors.
Some areas where previously few people ventured are now teeming with visitors. Sudden, large and unpredictable increases in tourist numbers can occur at certain locations. Recently, Tourism Wanaka posted a photo on its website of a sunrise taken from Roys Peak. There has since been a significant increase in use of the walkway, resulting in camping and parking issues.
Tourism is important and contributes to economic growth. Many small towns around the country rely on tourism for their prosperity. Imagine the economy of towns in central Otago without the Otago Central Rail Trail. But, as tourist numbers grow, we need to proactively manage the impact it has on local communities and the environment. Otherwise, we risk losing access to our greatest natural treasures.
The pressure on some communities has led to closure of tracks across private land that landholders have previously voluntarily allowed people to use. In the Queenstown area, access across private land to Mount Alfred at the head of Lake Wakatipu was recently closed by a landowner due to concerns about the number of people accessing the track.
Some councils around New Zealand have taken similar steps as a result of tourism pressure. For example, South Waikato District Council has prohibited swimming at the popular Blue Spring, on Te Waihou Walkway, due to the environmental impact of increased visitor numbers.
Fortunately, some have acted to address these issues. The New Zealand Cycle Trails initiative, for example, is the first coordinated approach in decades to securing access and creating trails. But this is just the first step.
What’s needed is a coordinated and holistic approach towards managing access to the outdoors. We need to be much more proactive in our management and planning, so that access isn’t further compromised now and in the future.
This more coordinated and holistic approach needs to involve looking at access to outdoor areas administered by councils, other government agencies and across private land – not just land managed by the Department of Conservation. We also need to think through how we can more actively influence visitor choices.
For example, we know social media and website articles can influence where people want to go in the outdoors, so agencies with a role in promoting tourism, and walking and cycling options can form part of the solution by promoting responsible behaviour in the outdoors and raising awareness of less-used trails to relieve pressure on those places that are struggling to cope.
On the other hand, we need to be careful this approach does not impact important wilderness experiences.
Access underpins the tourism industry, whether it relates to the creation of new trails, informing tourists where they can access the outdoors, or influencing their choices.
With rapidly increasing tourist numbers now is the time for a coordinated and strategic approach to managing and developing access to the outdoors.
• Eric Pyle is chief executive of the New Zealand Walking Access Commission. email@example.com
This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.