Environment, overtourism real concerns

Wanaka Airport should be returned to 100% ownership and control of the community. PHOTO: STEPHEN...
Wanaka Airport should be returned to 100% ownership and control of the community. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult's airport focus misses the real issues, writes Wanaka Stakeholders Group chairman Michael Ross.

Airports are a hot topic right now, and for good reason.

There are now three busy jet airports contemplated within an hour's drive of Queenstown — our existing airport in Frankton, possibly expanded, and two new jet airports near Wanaka. These plans are driven by corporate interests, and the community is feeling shut out.

Our mayor's recent background is airports and commercial tourism. He is also an advocate for Queenstown Airport Corporation's "dual airport strategy" in which Queenstown Airport is expanded by a second jet airport at Wanaka.

Indeed, he and others have already negotiated and granted QAC a 100-year ground lease of Wanaka Airport, and sold it all the airport assets and given it economic control.

There has been a lot of community push-back to these plans, with plenty of clear and sensible arguments as to why this is wrong for our region.

Last week, however, the mayor suddenly appeared to accept many of our arguments — even adopting them as his own, in respect of a competing proposed airport at Tarras ("Airport for Tarras plans fine, so long as it doesn't happen" — ODT August 13). If you had taken a bottle of twink to Mr Boult's article and replaced Tarras with Wanaka, it could have been written by any of our 3439 members.

Mr Boult pointed out that in our district Queenstown is the "most visited area" with the "largest population", and that it made little sense to develop an airport "more than an hour's drive from Queenstown with access either by a challenging mountain pass or the winding Kawarau Gorge."

Many of us have said exactly that. Like the mayor, we have already registered deep concern about significant numbers of tourists stepping off jets into rental cars to pour over the Crown Range or drive past the Roaring Meg to visit Queenstown, New Zealand's tourist magnet. Both are challenging roads already under significant strain, and not just in winter.

Mr Boult also berates Christchurchy International Airport Limited for not getting "round to asking the good folk of Tarras" about CIAL's plan. He clearly misses the irony of his statement.

The reason so many of us "good folk" in Wanaka (and Queenstown) are up in arms is because of a lack of any prior consultation with our communities. In fact, in Wanaka where the lease also compromises QLDC's 100% control of our waste water and sewerage system, Project Pure, there was absolutely no consultation about this related aspect at all.

Mr Boult questions "the morality" of an organisation with significant out-of-area shareholding "spending its money on a highly speculative venture in our part of the country". He clearly wrote that conveniently forgetting that QAC itself is a company 24.99% owned by Auckland International Airport Ltd (you can't get much further away from "our part of the country" than that), and the development of jet capability at Wanaka at a reported cost of some $400 million, would be highly speculative by any measure.

But it is the final section of Mr Boult's article which has perplexed us all the most. He claims, rightly, that "it will take a long time for air travel to recover to anything like what it was before Covid-19".

This is where his analysis accords with comments by hundreds of international experts (we've gathered 700-plus since March).

The mayor correctly concludes that therefore it will be "a long time" before Queenstown Airport faces capacity issues and that "no action will take place on developing commercial flights at Wanaka Airport for a similarly long time".

Assuming he believes that, we cannot understand why there is a point-blank refusal to "reset" and return Wanaka Airport and Project Pure back to the 100% ownership and control of the community. That is the very thing we asked the council to do as the impacts of Covid-19 were becoming clear back in March this year.

Mr Boult took the trouble to reply to our 3400-plus members with a resounding "no" to our reset request. Consequently, QAC (and shareholder Auckland Airport) has a firm grasp on our community airport, for future development as it wishes, and significant control over the location and development of Wanaka's sewage treatment plant to allow it to do that.

This is why we are going to the High Court in five weeks' time.

The ODT previously published an editorial urging leadership to "look beyond the horizon of their own piece of southern turf" and called for better thinking.

That puts it mildly. We are also staggered by the disappointingly narrow concern in Mayor Boult's opinion piece.

He is essentially concerned about "who gets the money" but ignores even more fundamental issues such as climate change, overtourism and infrastructure.

The real question is whether anybody should build any more large jet airports in our beautiful and fragile district.

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