Wanaka airport and growth

Wanaka Airport. Photo: Michael Thomas
Wanaka Airport. Photo: Michael Thomas
Angst in Wanaka about its rapid growth, including likely transformation of its airport, is palpable.

What was 50 years ago a modest rural servicing town with clusters of cribs, a small and nascent tourist industry and a mid-summer camping ground influx, has expanded unrecognisably.

A population of 800 has climbed exponentially beyond 8000 and is soaring onwards.  Blink and more houses sprout in Wanaka and Upper Clutha townships like Lake Hawea, Hawea Flat, Luggate and Cardrona.

Wanaka, so many a local or long-time visitor proclaimed,  was not like Queenstown.  It was nothing like as commercial,  glitzy or crowded.

That was then — but not now.

The tourist hoards have descended, subdivisions grown.

Perhaps the number one symptom is  the Roys Peak walk.  Each time the car park is expanded, it overflows.  What was once a quiet, even at times solitary walk, is now a procession of people.

The so-called shoulder seasons have, in a way, taken on new meaning. 

You are likely to be shoulder-to-shoulder in the supermarket even after summer ends and before skiing starts.While each generation bemoans change,  never has the concern been so acute. It would seem — save another global financial crisis or worse — nothing can stop the crowds. 

The natural beauty and ambience of Wanaka is such that it draws interest and attention just as "Wanaka’s tree" is a magnet for photographers.

Although some sparkle with enthusiasm to the buzz of skill saws and the expansion of facilities and big town opportunities,  many lament the loss of peace and tranquillity as they become harder and harder to find.

The "community engagement sessions" on Wanaka airport were a focus for views.  Naturally, a wide range  was expressed at these Queenstown Airport Corporation airport user and public consultation meetings.

But was it all futile window dressing or box-ticking? District councillor and Wanaka Community Board chairman Quentin Smith recognised this when he said recently the community has "limited ability" to stop its airport becoming  a destination for passenger jets, even if it wants to. 

The council might own the airport but it was leased in March to the airport corporation for 100 years. 

It (75% council-owned and 25% Auckland Airport) is now in charge of operations, planning and development.  It functioned like a business and councillors had little more knowledge of what was happening than the public. It appears Air New Zealand is ready to fly jets from Auckland once the airport runway is lengthened and strengthened, and the corporation is ready to invest. 

The economics of small-plane passenger flights, like the previous Air NZ  Christchurch to Wanaka service, are marginal.  Bring in scale and things change.

The commercialisation of the airport will not be gentle. To receive return on investment, the corporation will want plenty of flights, not just with Auckland. The legitimate fear or promise, depending on the point of view,  is that Wanaka becomes a huge part of the dual airport set-up with Queenstown, as outlined in the corporation’s master plan. 

If seven million passengers arrive in the district (up from about two million now) in 30 years’ time, as predicted, and Queenstown is capped at five million,  that is a torrent number arriving "over the hill" in Wanaka.

Looking further ahead, what is there to stop Wanaka becoming a, or even the, primary South Island international destination? The district is the leading tourist destination, and Queenstown has run out of space.

Many proposals in 2002 in Wanaka’s 2020 vision-exercise have come to pass.  Wanaka’s authorities and community can now plan further.

Hopefully, Wanaka can avoid Queenstown’s mistakes. While rapid growth might be inevitable, Wanaka need not encourage it.  It needs hard-headed strategies on its road ahead.

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