New Zealand 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: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is transforming from a world-renowned wilderness hike into a "sherpa line" due to New Zealand's unprecedented tourism boom.

Visitor numbers for the crossing have climbed more than 10-fold since 1990, reaching a peak of 125,000 in 2015.

The Alpine track is heralded as one of the best one day hikes in New Zealand, allowing tourists to traverse through a World Heritage Site - and The Lord of the Rings set location for Mordor - featuring volcanic peaks, barren rocky landscapes and emerald lakes.

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However, the Kiwi wilderness experience many tourists seek is no longer on offer at the crossing as trampers must share the track with thousands of others, making it near-impossible to snap a lone selfie.

Overcrowding has become a major complaint of tourists and is referenced in many online reviews of the crossing.

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Last summer, the Department of Conservation (DoC) predicted the Alpine crossing would see the "highest-ever visitor numbers."

The spectacular 20km crossing had fielded a steady 15 per cent increase annually in the past five years, a DoC spokesman told the Herald.

On a Tuesday morning in late March, a tourism shoulder season, two Herald reporters headed out to document the foot traffic on the crossing and came across more than 1000 other trampers.

Veteran tramper and Australian firefighter Stewart Lange said he wasn't aware of the crowds on the crossing until after he had already signed up for the two-day circuit of Tongariro National Park.

"Upon coming we heard the numbers were up to 2000 a day ... but it wasn't until this morning that I left the DoC hut and joined the track that I joined a line of fellow tourists," Lange said.

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"I mean it's good that people are seeing it, but my goodness, can it sustain it?" asked Lange, as dozens of tourists filed passed him on the side of the track.

Local Murray Wilson has lived in the nearby National Park Village for 25 years and was one of the first to start ferrying backpackers to the crossing in 1990, when it started to rise in popularity.

"It's getting crowded, no doubt about that," said Wilson. "My concern is the visitor experience. We don't want to spoil it and the difficulty now is people are walking in a sherpa line with people just ahead and just behind them."

He first started shepherding tourists out to the crossing in his own car, but as the demand started rapidly growing he purchased an ex-school bus to transport the trampers.

"The whole thing has grown immensely. Back in 1990 you'd be lucky to have around half a dozen up there. Now it's 1000 a day," he said.

he number of walkers on the track has grown hugely and has become crowded. Photo / Mike Scott
he number of walkers on the track has grown hugely and has become crowded. Photo / Mike Scott

To Wilson, the growing numbers created three problems: congestion on the roads; congestion at the toilets; congestion on the track.

"You used to have a wilderness experience but that's not possible now unless you do a moonlight walk," he said.

"This walk is very high-profile now and it's on people's to-do lists before they even come into the country."

Another concern for locals and experienced trampers alike was the number of unprepared tourists hitting the track, which can quickly become dangerous in unpredictable weather conditions.

The Herald witnessed trampers on the crossing in sandshoes and skinny jeans with scarves wrapped around their heads because they'd forgotten a hat and sunglasses.

Other more extreme examples of unprepared tourists included a group who had to be rescued from the track after walking it barefoot, channelling Frodo's barefoot journey through Mordor in The Lord of The Rings, or those tackling the crossing in jandals and wearing rubbish bags as ponchos.

Ray Goff is the director of Summit Shuttles, a new Tongariro Alpine Crossing Transport Service. Photo / Mike Scott
Ray Goff is the director of Summit Shuttles, a new Tongariro Alpine Crossing Transport Service. Photo / Mike Scott

Some tourists were also starting to notice how the track was well worn in areas and the Herald witnessed one man roll on to the rocks with his backpack after tripping over a loose rubber grip mat.

An experienced tramper from Queensland, Karl Noble, feared for the delicate natural environment along the fringes of the track.

"Some of these plants, if you step on them, they don't grow back for thousands of years," Noble said.

"It's great to see people going out and enjoying it, but it does distract from the wilderness walking. It's something you have to look at, 2000 people on a small walk like this, you distract from the beauty of the walk, I feel."

DoC has a strategic review in place for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing that includes infrastructure upgrades and attempting to spread the number of trampers out over the day to better manage the flow of visitors.

Future plans include limiting carparking and encouraging visitors to be picked up from designated shuttle transportation hubs and adding extra toilets in the summer.

Village local Ray Goff, who started a Tongariro Alpine Crossing transport service called Summit Shuttles during the summer, said the growing tourism numbers was a "massive benefit" to the community.

Trampers "tend to follow other people's bums and feet the whole time, but it's still one of the best walks in the world," Goff said.

The community was "expecting a hell of a lot more tourists over the next couple of years, for sure," he said.