Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry for New Zealand - and appetite from overseas travellers is increasing at an increasing rate, leaving some Kiwis to question whether we have the infrastructure to cope with the influx of guests. Next week about 300 international travel sellers will arrive here for the annual TRENZ 2017 conference; networking with hundreds of operators from the New Zealand tourism industry. Ahead of the conference the Herald visited some of our most-loved tourist hot-spots to find out what pressures locals and hosts were under, and how tourists viewed our offerings, as part of our The Great Tourism Squeeze series. Today: Akaroa

Akaroa is not the sleepy hamlet it once was.

On a dozen days this summer, two cruise ships visited. It was like a zombie invasion, a local told the Herald, "the newly-wed, the over-fed and the half-dead."

But the Eftpos machines in the town settled by the French and British are humming. Akaroa was scheduled to be visited by 77 cruise ships this season (October-April) carrying about 154,000 passengers.

Advertisement

Before the February 2011 earthquake eliminated Lyttelton Harbour as a venue, Akaroa hosted just half a dozen ships a year.

The day the Herald visited hundreds of passengers from the cruise ship Noordam swarmed ashore to shops and restaurants, queuing at public toilets near the wharf and tapping into free Wi-Fi by the town's library.

No one stands on the road counting vehicles bringing tourists but locals say the numbers self-driving or on small tours is growing too.

The town has also picked up custom since the Kaikoura earthquake from visitors keen on Akaroa harbour cruises and swim-with-dolphins excursions.

READ MORE:
Squeeze on over tourism funding
Tourism and living costs sky high in Queenstown
Milford off track but visitors pour in

The most notable growth is from China and India and, in smaller numbers, from Indonesia and the Philippines, says Akaroa District Promotions spokeswoman Hollie Hollander. They tend to come as part of small tour groups, in buses or vans.

"It's important for us to keep marketing because we're not on the way to anywhere else," Hollander says. Accommodation wasn't at capacity over summer, perhaps because more holiday homes are on Airbnb.

Lyttelton Harbour is ready to welcome cruise ships back and locals are unsure what will result. Hollander would like to see boutique cruises continue to come to Akaroa. They spend more, she says, "Quality rather than quantity."

Some don't like the cruise ships. "They don't have to make money from them," says Hollander, "they don't have businesses."

Tourists from the cruise line the Noordam arrive at the Akaroa pier ready to go on excursions or visit site in the French themed village. Photo / Mike Scott
Tourists from the cruise line the Noordam arrive at the Akaroa pier ready to go on excursions or visit site in the French themed village. Photo / Mike Scott

Mike Norris and wife Patsy Dart retired to Akaroa on land owned by Dart's parents. They are concerned the charm of the place may be lost in the tourism rush.

"It pays not to moan too much because there are advantages that we don't see but the business operators do," says Norris.

"It is hectic when there are two cruise ships in the harbour. You can hardly drive down the road."

Norris worries the town may come to be "owned" by the cruise ship companies, which can shape the towns by the services and experiences they choose to promote on the ship.

WATCH: New Zealand tourism story

New Zealand is rapidly becoming a hot-spot for global tourists, with our tourism industry's rich history dating back to the early 20th century

The road facing the harbour is dominated by cafes and restaurants and shops selling polished paua shells and such-like trinkets.

The town is changing, says Norris, chairman of heritage body, the Akaroa Civic Trust.

"Some of the speciality shops selling French things, that we'd have loved to have spent time in, have gone and been replaced by tourist shops."

They'd like to see a $5 levy on cruise ship passengers to help pay for the upkeep of roads, more public toilets and the new health hub that needs to be built. A helicopter regularly attends medical emergencies involving a cruise ship passenger, notes Norris.

There is a lot of discussion about the impact of booming tourism.

"One of the advocates of progress is reminding us that Akaroa in the 1940s was a pretty primitive place."

There are more amenities now, he says, such as harbour cruises, the choice of places to eat, and fresh fish can still be bought from the wharf.

Norris added: "We want to keep the balance right so we don't become the child of some cruise ship operator in Fort Lauderdale or wherever."

Pauline Woodward is handing out pamphlets and answering questions as passengers disembarking from the cruise ship's tenders. "I love Akaroa and I'm happy to promote it," says Woodward, one of a pool of about 20 retired people who volunteer to welcome the ships.

Charlie Chaplin impersonator Antcan entertains Paul Fitzharris, from Christchurch, on the streets of Akaroa. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Mike Scott
Charlie Chaplin impersonator Antcan entertains Paul Fitzharris, from Christchurch, on the streets of Akaroa. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Mike Scott

Not everyone is happy about the impact of the town's tourist boom and locals tend to avoid town when a ship is in, she says.

"They blame the cruise ships but they just come in for the day and they are gone. It's the freedom campers who probably do more damage," she says, "the ones that aren't self-contained. They use the bushes."

Ray Shoebridge, an escapee from Auckland's gnarled traffic, thinks the boom is great. "It makes the place sing. It would be deserted today but for the 1900 on the ship."

A lifelong sailor, Shoebridge makes a living taking visitors on harbour excursions in his elegant kauri and teak sloop. After selling his charter boat business in Auckland, he'd planned to travel the world but got captured by Akaroa.

"We got this far and fell in love. We were off to Europe, to Switzerland. We had a look around and thought, 'this is like those lakes over there'."

His boat can take only a few passengers and he earns just enough to keep his head above water.

"But I love what I do. I get a lot of tourist clients and they are gobsmacked by the beauty."