Last year New Zealand welcomed a record 3.5 million visitors to its shores. As the tourism industry steams along with international arrivals growing at 12 per cent a year, 2017 should set a new record. By 2022, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment forecasts that one million more tourists will enter New Zealand, and tip $16 billion into the economy.
On current trends this forecast, made just last year, will be eclipsed well before then, with as many as seven million travellers having their passports stamped on arrival by 2023.
The flood of visitors is placing stress on many destinations. Small towns which benefit from the tourism dollar are struggling to meet demands on their facilities such as toilets, carparks and transport.
Environmentally sensitive locations are bearing a burden that was never anticipated by managers of the public estate, which is what draws so many people to this country. The line of hikers making the day journey across the Tongaririo alpine crossing or the white campervans queued at scenic drawcards on the West Coast is evidence of the mounting pressure at tourism hotspots.
To ease the burden on towns and cities, a 2 per cent bed tax and $5 increase in the departure levy were suggested in a report by McKinsey and Company for several of the country's big industry stakeholders. These measures, together with a $65 million injection from taxpayers, would raise $130 million for tourism infrastructure, which is the amount of investment needed in 20 council areas where soaring visitor numbers have outstripped ratepayer spending.
But this money, if it comes to pass, does not address the urgent needs of the national parks.
Last year Department of Conservation director-general Lou Sanson suggested it was time to start charging to access the Great Walks. The walks, dotted through the parks, cost $3 million more to maintain last year than they earned in hut fees. The shortfall was covered from DoC's already stretched budget.
Legislation prevents DoC charging for park access, or profiting from the assets it manages. It does though recover funds from licences it grants to commercial operators using the parks, though its financial wheels appear to grind slowly given that it is meant to set fees at market rates. This week for instance DoC announced that commercial aircraft would pay more to land on conservation property including glaciers and ski-slopes, the first rise since 2011. The McKinsey report suggested that a "private consortium" could run the Great Walks, though given the attachment New Zealanders assign to national parks it is unlikely this idea will progress far.
Sanson has suggested that foreign tourists should pay more than New Zealanders to stay in huts.
The load on the parks and prime tourist attractions is concentrated on a small slice of the DoC estate which includes Milford Sound, the Tongariro crossing, the Westland glaciers, Nelson lakes, Abel Tasman, Mt Cook and Cape Reinga.
There are, clearly, mechanisms which could help better manage pressures arising from tourism - and sustain the appeal of our natural assets. What is needed is urgency in implementing them.