Tourism: blessings and burdens

Everyone knows tourism is the beating heart of Queenstown.

The town attracts retirees in sizeable numbers as well as business people who can choose their place of residence. But  tourists underpin the town and  pump the runaway growth.

At the other extreme is stagnation and decline.  Services are lost, homes decline in value and depression and dilapidation sets in.

Fewer and poorer ratepayers meet bills to replace decaying infrastructure.

For Queenstown Lakes, there is pride in the area’s status as the  world adventure capital and in the sounds and sights of progress everywhere.  Subdivisions sprout and the Queenstown and Wanaka CBDs are abuzz.

But this rampant expansion brings burdens.  Drains, water supply capacity, amenities and roads struggle or fail to cope.

The peace that accompanied the scenic splendour disappears.  Houses and rents become unaffordable. Lake and riverside are awash with "freedom campers", new extended car parks at attractions like Roy’s Peak and the Blue Pools are overwhelmed.

Unsurprisingly, locals begin asking more questions about what they want.  Should, or even can, growth be tampered?  What is being lost?  Who will pay for all that is required?  Is there too much of a good thing?

Mayor Jim Boult,  a smart businessman who likes to move on to the front foot on matters, when discussing the council’s long-term plan, has warned of massive spending to cope with traffic, water and community facility issues.  Big rate increases would also be required from central Queenstown commercial ratepayers under the proposed Queenstown Town Centre Masterplan project.

Mr Boult argues for Government help, specifically a visitor levy.  Queenstown has received $46.5million in interest-free loans for infrastructure work in Frankton, Ladies Mile and Kingston, and new roading and schooling projects have received support.

The GST alone on the estimated more than $2billion tourists spend in Queenstown amounts to more than $230million, and the likes of providing and operating public facilities for tourists can be too much to bear, particularly building and maintaining roads which are not state highways.

On the other hand, all the new houses, hotels and businesses are creating new ratepayers and more wealth.  The tourists are providing income and jobs and a fall-off in visitor numbers could create even more long-term funding difficulties.  Both taxpayers and ratepayers need to be wary of justifications for increased support and  spending because of tourists.

Given tourism’s boom, questions will be asked about Destination Queenstown’s proposed 10% funding increases for each of the next three years. It argues its marketing activities have contributed to the town’s annual guest night increases, which are running well ahead of national percentage increases.  Most of Destination Queenstown’s income, at present $3.491million, comes from businesses, but residential ratepayers also make a small contribution to it, Lake Wanaka Tourism and the Arrowtown  Promotion Board.

Since a big rise in 2008,  Destination Queenstown funding has increased 20%. This has been mostly absorbed by staff salaries and through the shift to new CBD commercial premises.

While the organisation warns about complacency and believes Queenstown should be doing its best to control its message rather than just letting that happen, it — like the council itself — could be caught up in debates about the rapid growth.

Should the drive be more for sustainable tourism?  Does Queenstown — and New Zealand for that matter — need to keep pushing for more tourists? They both already try to spread visitors through the shoulder seasons and Tourism New Zealand endeavours to shift tourist interest to other places besides just the most popular resorts.

Whatever the conclusions, the fact remains this country, and especially Queenstown Lakes, rely on the economic favours of tourism — whatever the strains. Tourism earns this country more foreign exchange than any other industry and it directly employs more than 7.5% of the workforce.  Whatever the burdens, its benefits are essential.

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