Cruise ships highlight tourism tension

The news cruise ships are to return to Otago has been welcomed by those who benefit from these visits.

In the year to June 2019, cruise ship spending in the Dunedin area hit more than $60 million, dropping to almost $50 million the following year when some visits were cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even so, 115 visits were clocked up that year.

Nobody is expecting visits to reach those heights in the near future, with Port Otago chief executive Kevin Winders estimating the rebuilding could take a couple of years.

The cruise ship industry highlights the tension around tourism numbers and their environmental impact in New Zealand.

The lack of international tourists has had a huge impact on the tourism industry, previously our biggest export earner. In the year to March 2021 international tourism expenditure decreased 91.5% from $16.2 billion to $1.5 billion compared with the previous year. As well as substantial job losses, it is worth noting this drop in visitors meant that Goods and Services Tax (GST) generated from international tourists that year dropped to $165million, a decrease of $1.7billion.

It cannot be forgotten that the huge numbers of international tourists the country experienced in pre-pandemic years was putting pressure on the environment and causing concern in communities which felt they were ill-equipped to cope with the onslaught.

Even if we move towards a model with greater emphasis on domestic tourism in future, the need to minimise or reverse environmental degradation will still be necessary.

As the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton says, we need to be careful the impact of climate change does not result in maladaptive practices involving emissions-intensive activities. An example of this has been seen at Fox Glacier, where restricted walking access to the shrinking glacier has resulted in increased helicopter and aeroplane flights.

There has supposedly been a recognition that we cannot return to tourism as it was, and the Government is working on a Tourism Industry Transformation Plan (ITP).

But the dream of moving towards a regenerative tourism system which ‘‘should deliver more for New Zealanders’ intergenerational wellbeing than it takes away’’, and is an extension of sustainability, according to ITP documents, may seem impossible to many operators in their existing situation. Many of them are struggling to get staff so they can carry on in any form.

So far there has not been much evidence of change apart from tightening up freedom camping rules and the Milford Opportunities Project, meant to redesign tourism in Milford Sound to make it environmentally sustainable and lessen the damage from tourists. Its proposals included a ban on cruise ships entering Milford Sound, a visitor levy and removal of the aerodrome runway. However, the development of the business plan to implement this has been delayed because there was difficulty finding a director for the project.

Apart from what may eventuate at Milford Sound, it is difficult to tell where cruise ships fit in the long-term of the New Zealand tourism industry.

There have been rumblings about their environmental impact for some time. In 2011, this newspaper quoted a visiting Canadian academic Associate Prof David Brown, lecturing on sustainable transportation, as saying it would be hard to find a more environmentally destructive form of transport.

He did not mince words, drawing attention to the use of low-quality oil, limited controls on the dumping of waste at sea and the premise of the industry revolving around excessive consumption.

Eleven years later, University of Otago Tourism Professor James Higham has suggested a comprehensive and critical analysis of the cruise industry is needed to advance the debate beyond simplistic reference to ship and passenger numbers and the money spent.

In the current tourism downturn, and despite its tourism transformation noises, it is difficult to see the Government having the appetite for that.

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