Omarama at a crossroads

Gary Kircher
Gary Kircher
Omarama is the latest town to express concern about the number of people who descend on its limited resources during the peaks of the tourist season.

Once, the town on the route between Christchurch, Aoraki Mt Cook, Cromwell and Queenstown, was a place to get petrol and food, perhaps buying a few groceries in preparation for an overnight stay somewhere else along the route.

Gradually, more accommodation was built as the area became well-known internationally for its fishing attractions and gliding competitions.

Type ''Omarama'' into an internet search engine and you now find lists of things to do in the town nestled at the south end of Mackenzie Country. Hot tubs, clay cliffs and gliding are among the top 10 attractions listed.

No doubt, there have been some business-owning residents happy with the increase in tourists, either passing by or staying for the night. However, the charm of small-town New Zealand is being lost as tourist numbers increase exponentially.

The continued growth in visitors to Queenstown, Wanaka and Milford Sound means new facilities are always needed. Putting aside the need for more public toilets and places for freedom campers to spend time safely and at the same time respect the environment, unrestrained growth in places like Omarama can be damaging.

Omarama Residents and Ratepayers Association chairwoman Ann Patterson says the town is fast approaching crisis point.

The town of about 300 people services the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, nearby Oteake Conservation Park and Ahuriri Conservation Park, which all drag in huge numbers of tourists. Infrastructure cannot cope.

The town is being trashed, according to Mrs Patterson. Vehicles park haphazardly and a crisis stage has been reached for parking and toilet facilities.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher says Waitaki District Council appreciates the pressure the town is under and wants a ''bigger conversation'' to address the community's concerns.

Holding ''conversations'' is the new phrase to defer doing anything anytime soon, postponing the inevitable and hoping someone else will fix the problem.

To be fair to the council, it has a large area to administer and Omarama is at the far side of its sphere of influence.

Partly, the problem requires a national-led response, but clearly some local solutions are also needed.

Omarama is at a crossroads, of sorts, sitting at the junction of State Highways 8 and 83. The district wants to avoid the issues seen in other towns experiencing rapid growth. Many in the town have seen a significant increase of people and Omarama is struggling to cope.

The problems to be solved include how to maintain the unmistakable charm of such areas while catering for coachloads of tourists and thousands of camper vans with occupants also looking for Kiwi nirvana.

The Ratepayers and Residents Association wants a town plan, before it is too late. Pedestrian safety, parking, rubbish and toilet problems all urgently need addressing.

The community has raised $40,000 to put towards a multipurpose sports facility which may include tennis and netball courts. Those facilities are essential if a town's long-term population is growing. But the most immediate concern is addressing the urgent needs of a town servicing throngs of tourists passing through.

Successive governments have lauded the export-earning potential of New Zealand's growing tourist numbers. Longer shoulder seasons will continue to drive increased tourism sector numbers into the foreseeable future.

By now, those ''conversations'' should have been had. Waitaki is no doubt benefiting from increased rating revenue as Omarama businesses expand. It will be a tragedy if another New Zealand town is despoiled by a lack of action from central and local authorities.


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