Tourism: are we wrecking our own backyard?
Wanaka's Karen Bellew, who works in the tourism industry, fears we're killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Like some others, she's calling for a moratorium on increased tourism until we have the infrastructure to ensure the current number of visitors have a good experience.
A year ago I moved to glorious Wanaka to take up a role as manager of Wanaka Homestead, a lovely bed, breakfast and cottage establishment, very close to the lake.
This followed nine years of owning my own accommodation business in Southland. So I’ve met thousands of people visiting our fantastic country, from all parts of the world. I feel well enough informed to comment on my fear we may well be killing the golden goose, in the drive to increase visitor numbers to four million. The number sounds feasible, but the reality is another story.
I constantly hear from very well-travelled, environmentally-conscious, overseas tourists that we really need to be careful. Their take is of a poor visitor experience, huge numbers on tracks, with people literally sidling sideways to get past each other. Congested car parks, horrendous numbers of campervans. And that none of the industry promotional pictures portray the reality - of queueing, dangerous driving, poor parking, poor signage and planning.
As many of us know, freedom camping is a huge problem. I applaud all efforts by Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Jim Boult to address this nationwide problem. We should not be encouraging this type of tourist. Do we offer them all a free beer, a free hamburger, or a free coffee each day of their stay here? No. So why give them a free place to park each night, where some defecate and dump their rubbish?
We have fabulous holiday parks and camping grounds. All are trying to run businesses and employ staff, and having to pay rates. It is an insult to these owners for central Government to create a fund from which councils can apply for millions of dollars for infrastructure to build toilets and develop better conditions for these tourists.
The worst thing we ever did was bandy around the name Freedom Camping. I have seen people cooking their lunch over a gas cooker, the back of their untidy van open, clothes hung up to dry - all of this in the car park of a pay-to-view garden and animal petting business which had its own café.
Also, it seems everyone has had a near miss driving experience - I’ve had about five in the past year.
Here’s some simple things we could do to improve our visitors’ experience in Wanaka:
* I read with interest the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s plan to address waterfront parking in Wanaka. Fabulous, I thought. The proposal addressed pedestrian flow, the view of the lake for people dining in the town centre, and the proposed rejigging of existing and new parking areas from Dungarvon St and back to the east of the downtown area.
But there was nothing about fixing the huge craters in the lakefront carparks on the west side of the town centre. No plan to seal these, to remove the mud in the winter and dust in summer.
No plan for safer and easier access to and exit from these lakeside car parks. The lakefront car parks look like one huge area, when they are in fact a series of small parking bays. On entering the car park and discovering this, drivers are forced to negotiate their way out while other unsuspecting drivers line up behind them – all happening off the busy road to Mt Aspiring National Park, Treble Cone ski area and numerous other attractions. Frustration mounts…
* The stunning lake view is completely obliterated in spring, summer and autumn by rows upon rows of campervans. Surely we can develop a strip along Pembroke Park for high campervans, so we can all enjoy the breath-taking views. Supermarkets and malls have designated campervan parks, so surely we should too?
* There are limited new toilet blocks in the plan too, despite the thousands of day visitors to the lake. There are currently just two toilets at the western end of the town lakefront area and queues of people waiting outside them in summer.
There are another two toilets tucked under a tree in Wanaka Station Park, but they’re hundreds of metres from the lake and aren’t even easily visible to people enjoying Wanaka Station Park.
* Piles of tidily stacked rubbish bags are also placed around the inadequately-sized rubbish bins at the western end of the downtown lakefront area every day. We have provided a fantastic playground and a covered BBQ area, but not thought through how the rubbish looks.
New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations have much bigger problems too - inadequate worker housing and Air BnB style accommodation not paying their share of the infrastructure costs. A bed tax is not going to result in anywhere near the revenue truly required to keep up with the strain all tourists - domestic and international - place on the small ratepayer base.
But I‘m impressed with Lake Wanaka Tourism’s efforts to increase visitor numbers during our shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) and not just keep playing the numbers game for the sake of it. Their initiatives to help local businesses in all sectors to be smarter and meet the ongoing technology requirements to do business these days is also to be applauded.
The consistent message we hear from our guests is that we truly do live in paradise – they find the constant change in the vistas over such a short driving time almost mesmerising. They still see our rivers as pristine. They are delighted by our genuine Kiwi friendliness, although they can initially be a little wary of our lax attitudes towards manners, protocol and just expecting visitors to “go with the flow”, as we do. But, by the end of their stay, they get it - they get us.
But let’s have a national moratorium on any growth in visitor numbers until we are truly and confidently managing the numbers we have already.