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Record numbers of tourists are visiting Wanaka and Queenstown and this summer is expected to be the busiest yet. Kerrie Waterworth spoke to Department of Conservation tourism, recreation and heritage director Gavin Walker, who works ways to deal with the pressures from visitors on our conservation land.
What are the most popular nature spots, or pinch points, in the Wanaka and Queenstown areas?
The Southern Lakes are certainly at the sharp end of the rise in both international visitors and Kiwi holidaymakers in recent times. Our local department sites and staff are feeling the positive and the negative impacts of this, alongside local communities. I think it is fair to say that all our accessible sites in the Wanaka and Queenstown areas are very popular, particularly Roys Peak, Rob Roy, the Glenorchy lagoon walkway, those on the Queenstown-Glenorchy Rd, and leading on to the Routeburn/Greenstone/Rees/Dart tracks, and also places along the Haast Pass Highway.
Issues arising from this include rubbish, indiscriminate toileting and wear and tear that rangers are working hard to manage. It is useful to look at what is driving this trend. We are seeing in New Zealand and across the globe that people are increasingly seeking nature-based escapes from their urban, technology-focused lives and places like the Southern Lakes are extremely attractive to those people. New Zealand offers stunning natural experiences in abundance and as a result, visitors are increasingly seeking out the special places locals have known and loved for generations.
While word of mouth has always been the key driver for a place’s popularity, this has been exponentially amplified by social media.
There will be a range of views about whether this is a good or a bad thing. While people can no longer enjoy in seclusion all their special local places, it has provided employment opportunities for many people across the region and it does encourage a strong level of support for our natural environment. We are committed to ensuring that conservation values are not put at risk by increasing use and that people, including locals, can still have rewarding and safe experiences.
In preparation for what is predicted to be our busiest summer season yet, the department is stepping up its compliance work, maintaining our huts, tracks and toilets, and promoting responsible visitor behaviour.
In the short term we have a real focus on making sure we have got the right infrastructure and staffing to manage high-use places accepting that they will continue to be high-use.
Increased numbers are going to these places because they are spectacular and easy to get to. Were putting more resource than ever into our busiest places, with an extra $2million going towards operational costs in these areas over the coming months. Across the southern South Island we have budgeted more than 3000 additional hours of summer rangers’ time, compared to the same time last year. When we keep things nice and tidy, most people respect that and follow by example.
In other hot spots in the region, there are significant projects going ahead regarding toilet infrastructure, focusing on areas such as Blue Pools on the Haast-Makarora Highway, Cameron Flat, Roys Peak, Raspberry car park near Wanaka and Mt Aspiring. In the long term, while we cannot control social media or word of mouth, some places are really important for locals and the department will not be profiling those places to anybody else. Providing and promoting new opportunities around Queenstown and Wanaka would simply add to the visitor pressure in the region and also draw attention to remaining quiet local gems. Our strategy is to give people a reason to visit other parts of New Zealand such as the northern West Coast, where communities are saying they want more tourism activity and the department and others already have the infrastructure to support greater use. While it may not seem the case in parts of Otago, most conservation areas have capacity to accommodate additional visitors without impacting negatively on conservation or the quality of experience provided.
If you had a bigger budget what extra measures would you put in place?
It is not a question of building more toilets or bigger car parks, it is about thoughtful, sustainable management. Conservation is not going to benefit if we simply build more infrastructure in our special places and this also isn’t going to help communities to find solutions that work best for them. Where the resistance or pressure points arise we often find that this produces local innovation, whether it’s transport services in adjacent communities, park-and-ride schemes or guiding operations. While the department is working hard in this space and acknowledges its role, it’s up to all of use to work together and manage our places.
Yes and this is happening right now. In some places additional rangers who can both host and educate visitors, and also manage behaviour, are the most effective tool. A new national compliance strategy, setting out a strong approach for Doc’s compliance and law enforcement responsibilities, was launched in August.
Improving Doc’s compliance function is one of the department’s key priorities. We work closely with local councils to ensure our approach supports their work in managing freedom camping. We also have a role in regulating freedom camping on conservation land and providing inexpensive alternatives for campers. The department works with visitor centres and campervan hire companies to communicate the rules and guide people about appropriate behaviour. Where camping is restricted or prohibited, or infringements take place, the department can issue instant $200 fines for people who do not comply.
The Roys Peak Track is of major concern here in Wanaka. The track has reopened with a bigger car park but still no toilet on the summit. There have been reports the Alpha Burn Creek is polluted with human faeces and there are human faeces along the track everywhere.
There are calls to make overnighting on the summit an offence — why do you not introduce that?
The department is very aware of these issues and we are going to put a toilet up high on Roys Peak in response. Overnight camping on Roys Peak has been something that’s gone on at low levels for a long time. Now the message is out that is a great place to camp to see the sun rise! This is an issue for the department across the country — behaviours that were once fine at low levels are no longer sustainable with higher visitor numbers. We’re committed to either providing the facilities to allow these activities to be done appropriately or getting rangers out on the ground to move people when those activities are causing an impact.
It is easy to say tourists could be diverted to other nature attractions, but in reality there are so many websites and apps that say when you visit Wanaka you must do the Rob Roy Track, so how do you compete with that?
Acknowledging that this is the reality of today’s world and this is how we all now receive information, we need to work really hard with commercial providers, communities and Regional Tourism Organisations to give people equally appealing opportunities elsewhere and to allow social media and word of mouth to reinforce these over time. Where conservation values are at significant risk, we will need to respond using other mechanisms such as booking systems.
Does Doc have any plans to integrate more technology into the visitor experience?
New technologies can and do provide us with useful tools to manage visitor demand and behaviour. They can also enhance visitor experiences, and the department will explore these possibilities as they arise. We are currently looking at our booking service and website to ensure they remain relevant and are easy to use. On the other hand, we are mindful that technology should not be at the forefront of people’s experience in nature. For most, the value in spending time in nature is actually slowing down and spending time with friends and families and appreciating our wildlife and landscapes. The department’s approach is to understand visitor needs and preferences, inform their expectations and provide experiences on conservation land that meet them. Technology, particularly around mobile phones, is likely to be a part of that in some cases.
Fast forward 10 years and what role do you see Doc playing in the Wanaka-Queenstown area?
All the forecasts project New Zealand to continue to be a popular tourism destination. The department will have a leadership role in nature-based recreation as part of a wider community enabling people to look after their special places. Tourism pressures will need to be carefully managed, while also bringing great opportunities to build a bigger community internationally that cares deeply about New Zealand and its unique biodiversity.