A controversial $170 million monorail linking Queenstown and Fiordland National Park will bring in 20,000 extra tourists to New Zealand every year with an aggressive overseas marketing campaign, the project's brainchild says.
Multi-millionaire property developer Bob Robertson has vowed to spend $3 million annually marketing New Zealand and his Fiordland Link Experience abroad, especially in China and Brazil.
It will be a $179 ticket, two-hour trip from Queenstown to Lake Te Anau on the fringe of the protected national park.
It will include a catamaran ride up Lake Wakatipu before an all-terrain vehicle jaunt through the back country Mt Nicholas station to a monorail station.
Visitors will then get on the super-silent monorail, its design based on one in Kuala Lumpur, and cut through 29km of Department of Conservation beech forest which forms part of the Te Wahipounamu (South West New Zealand) World Heritage Area - with the rest on privately-owned farmland.
"The economic spin-offs for the whole country, never mind the local economy, will be massive. Many, many millions," Mr Robertson said today as he took journalists on a helicopter flight over the proposed 106km journey.
Robertson has already poured $5 million of his own cash into the ambitious project.
Opponents, which include Forest & Bird, the local council, and a group calling itself Save Fiordland, say it will be too damaging to the pristine environment and set a dangerous precedent for development of protected areas.
The decision on whether it gets the green light sits with Conservation Minister Nick Smith.
His office said today that the minister - who earlier this year vetoed a plan for an 11km bus tunnel beneath the Routeburn track - will visit the area in November and make a decision either late this year or early next year.
Mr Robertson is desperate for a decision sooner rather than later.
He said tourism was dying in the region and projects like the Fiordland Link Experience were desperately needed to bring some life back.
"To keep our tourism industry alive, we need two or three new initiatives that can deliver on what we are selling overseas - our clean, green image.
"Unfortunately, it's not easy to do, and that's why if this gets rejected, others projects will be resigned to the 'too hard' basket."
Opponents estimate at least 20,000 beech trees will be destroyed in the monorail's construction.
Southland district Mayor Frana Cardno said both the council and Venture Southland made submissions against it.
"This is our backyard - one of the few areas in the world left like it - and it needs to be protected to the hilt."
She claimed Mr Robertson was trying to monopolise the tourist dollar and cut off Te Anau by making a hotel complex at the end of the monorail journey a "local tourism hub".
Mr Robertson said the ageing backpackers lodge and former Best Western hotel he owns there would be given a $50 million makeover but argued the whole area would benefit.
Save Fiordland and Forest & Bird say the project would "violate" a keystone ecosystem, and impact on pristine ancient beech forest, as well as tussocks, bog pine, yellow mistletoe, and dwindling populations of native birds and protected lizards and bats.
Mr Robertson said most of the criticism was ill-founded.
Claims it would leave an imprint on the forest "akin to a motorway" were wrong, he said.
It would require only a 6 metre-wide "carriageway", standing 2m high, that would not break the forest canopy.
If the project gets approval, construction would completed by 2017, he said.