Shaping Wanaka's future in tourism

Lake Wanaka Tourism general manager James Helmore. PHOTOS: ODT
Lake Wanaka Tourism general manager James Helmore. PHOTOS: ODT
Visitor numbers to Wanaka are dropping, resident opposition to an expanded jet-capable Wanaka airport is growing and the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s 2018 Quality of Life survey found the majority of respondents were not comfortable with the growth of visitor numbers in the district. Kerrie Waterworth spoke to Lake Wanaka Tourism general manager James Helmore about developing a destination master plan for Wanaka in these challenging times.

Q Firstly, can you define a destination master plan?

It is about making the Wanaka region a great place to live first and foremost, which will make it a great place to visit.

Q How do you create one?

A destination master plan requires entities to come together to discuss what our destination could become in the future and that has to be informed by a whole lot of different sources.

For example, we take our board meetings to all the different communities, such as Luggate, Makarora, Hawea, and Cardrona and as well as Wanaka. We also hold meetings where we pull all of the businesses and all the resident association committees and the council representatives together and we discuss what is on their minds. The council is involved in the process to a degree through its own master plan process in trying to envisage what Wanaka could look like in 30 years' time. Central government is playing quite a role to support council there, through the spatial plan which is due to be released early next year.

Q Why do we need a destination management plan?

General manager of Lake Wanaka Tourism James Helmore believes it is about making the Wanaka...
General manager of Lake Wanaka Tourism James Helmore believes it is about making the Wanaka region a great place to live which will make it a great place to visit.
I think by having one you get a more collaborative and co-ordinated approach, and that is what we are all working towards.

Q Visitor numbers are dropping, do you see that continuing?

Tourism is highly cyclical, so it goes through strong growth and then levels out and it will muddle along for a bit and it might even decline before it potentially increases again. The national tourism forecast showed compound growth through to 2025. I actually think that is unrealistic, as Tourism Industry Association CEO Chris Roberts has said the boom is over. We had the peak of the tourism boom in 2016 with 12% increase in international visitors, currently we are sitting at 2%, but before the end of this year I would anticipate we are at 0% or even negative territory.

Q Why do you think a downturn has occurred?

Because the ability and propensity of people to travel depends on the economies of their countries and you only need to look around the world to see there is a lot of uncertainty. You've got the China and US trade wars, and you've got consumer sentiment changing. Throughout Europe train travel has increased by 21% and in some countries, such as Sweden, you can be flight-shamed. New Zealand and Australia are the key people we target because they are close, their carbon footprint is lower, they can come at the times of the year we want them to come and they also connect with our values and our identity. Wanaka is also a place where Kiwis come to holiday. It is the No1 destination of choice for domestic visitors, according to AA Traveller, and that is all part of destination management.

Q If visitor numbers are dropping, why do we need to redevelop and expand Wanaka airport?

I think there is a lot of subjective and really speculative comments out there around the redevelopment of Wanaka airport. I'd prefer to focus on what are the facts as we know them today. What QAC has said is there are between 300,000 to 400,000 resident and visitor passenger movements going through Queenstown airport and you divide that by two for the number of people that can be linked straight back to Wanaka.

I guess what I would like is for people to look at the evidence and understand that not only have we had growing visitor numbers coming to Wanaka but we also have had a growing population. Our population has doubled in six years, and according to the Queenstown council it is going to double again in 10 years. So, I think the focus on visitors needs to be a bit more nuanced than that.

Q Is destination management also about managing numbers?

Absolutely! Destination management is about understanding those numbers, understanding visitor and resident sentiment and sustainability. If you look under the destination management framework MBIE has done, you spread the visitor demand so you don't have the peaks and troughs. That is about having sustainable tourist numbers throughout the year and sustainable growth, because spreading that demand improves a business viability and that translates into jobs and careers.

Q The 2018 Queenstown Lakes District Council quality of life survey found more than half the respondents were not happy with the number of tourists coming to the region? How do you define too many?

Too many is a very subjective statement, to be honest. As a Kiwi, I will stand on a beach somewhere, and this is an extreme case, but I will only be happy if I am the only one there, whereas some visitors from different parts of the country and, indeed different parts of the world, are happy if they are only one foot away from someone. We are not chasing volume in our new strategic plan. We are trying to grow value at twice the rate of volume. We are targeting high-end visitors and we have been doing that ever since I have been in this role, which is 10 years plus. Tourism brings in $573million a year to Wanaka, which is about $1.6million per day, so we know the economic side of it is really good but we want broader measures of success. We know there are a lot of positive benefits to tourism but with the growth there comes some consequences that need to be addressed. So understanding the resident sentiment is important.

Visitors ranked Wanaka in the top five of 170 global destinations.
Visitors ranked Wanaka in the top five of 170 global destinations.
Q How do you gather resident input?

This is where we want to work with council on their quality of life survey, we want to add some questions to help us understand what is the resident understanding and sentiment towards tourism and what drives our quality of life. Our vision for Wanaka is that we will be recognised as a leading tourist destination delivering an outstanding visitor experience but that outstanding visitor experience can only happen if we have a welcoming community, and if we have planned effectively for future growth in visitor and resident numbers. First and foremost we have to be a great place to live and then we have to be a great place to visit.

Q How does climate change factor into a destination management plan?

I prefer to think of it as climate crisis, actually - it is something humanity has to grasp. We've got some pretty uncomfortable decisions to make in terms of the way we live. Our organisation contributed a lot of information into the council's initial consultation process on its climate change policy and we'll be looking closely at the feedback from the public consultation. We will also be bringing in companies like Enviromark who help businesses understand what their carbon footprint is, how they can offset it, how they can mitigate it, how they can reduce it.

Q So, looking into the future what would be a successful outcome to a destination management plan?

Making sure our community is welcoming to visitors because people come here talking about the places and the beauty, but they leave talking about the people they met and the welcome they received. Visitors give a lot to us as a community, you've got the economic benefits but you also have that connection to people from around the world, their different cultures and customs, and you create friendships and you get a greater perspective on the world which is really important. Part of the charm and the appeal of Wanaka for residents, visitors and tourists is it's small town feel, and how do we retain that as we grow? There needs to be really good discussion by our community about how we want to see our place develop in the future. We need to find the common ground that exists between all of us. I think there is a whole lot more that unites us than divides us.


Visitors rank the Wanaka region in the top 5 of 170 global destinations

 Visitors spend $573million or $1.57million per day in the Wanaka region

 International arrivals to NZ are forecast to grow 4% a year to 5.1million by 2025

 Spend by 4.3% a year, with most growth from Australia, China and US.

 Could result in 140,000 more international visitors to the Wanaka region by 2025 (If current market share is sustained) , generating an additional $133million and
300,000+ extra guest nights (assuming extra capacity created).

 More than half of residents are not comfortable with the growth of visitor or resident numbers within the district.

 Lake Wanaka Tourism is a member based organisation and represents more than 500 local businesses. 

— SOURCE: Lake Wanaka Tourism Strategic Plan : Towards 2028; Queenstown Lakes District Council Quality of Life Report 2018 

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