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 with 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: Milford

In the tiny hamlet of Milford Sound the madness begins at 11am. That's when the first vehicles arrive to link up with boat trips on the Sound.

Aside from trampers on the Milford Track and a smattering of well-heeled travellers who arrive by air, the long and spectacular Highway 94 is the only route.

Coaches load their cargo of tourists before dawn in Queenstown to make the five hour road trip. They make the return journey at night after the tourists have taken their photos and made their voyages. It is a tiring day for them and a tough day behind the wheel for drivers.


Cruise numbers is a good gauge of booming tourism in this small part of Fiordland. The year ending March 2016, saw 585,500 full fare paying passengers on Milford cruises. The number rose by about 100,000 in each of the previous two seasons and Jeff Grant, chairman of stakeholder body Milford Sound Tourism, says the figure for the season just ended will be about 650,000.

Add 10 per cent who arrive by track or road but don't take a cruise and a total of 730,000 people visited in the past year.

Boats, each able to carry a few hundred people, line the shore adjacent to the passenger terminal at the end of the road. Jucy, the company that started out renting campervans and then added hotels, has its own boat on the Sound. It schedules trips a little later, fitting in with the late-start late-finish rhythm of its customers.

The bustling passenger terminal is at the end of the road. Travellers park a five-minute walk away at what passes for the town. Few people live here. There is a cafe, what was once the grand THC Hotel is now Mitre Peak Lodge catering exclusively to Milford Track guided tour groups, and a kilometre away Milford Lodge has chalets, bunk rooms and campervan bays - the only option for self-drive travellers.

Most visitors have little option other than a long round trip.

A solution being worked on is to develop options to stay along the road, says Grant, a former MP who farms Mt Linton Station.

"The capacity of the road is fine, although you would have some question marks around the capability and style of driving by some tourists."

The majestic sight of Mitre Peak has been enjoyed by a growing number of tourists who have headed to Mitre Peak over the past five years. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Mike Scott.
The majestic sight of Mitre Peak has been enjoyed by a growing number of tourists who have headed to Mitre Peak over the past five years. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Mike Scott.

At peak 80 buses arrive in Milford Sound daily, plus campervans and cars. Delays (10 minutes when the Herald visited in March) at the single-lane Homer Tunnel are reasonable, says Grant.


"For about 20 days of the year the carpark is full and vehicles are parked along the side of the road."

Surveys indicate that while Kiwis consider it a bit packed, overseas visitors don't.

Grant: "It's not unusual to them compared to anywhere else they go around the world. The perception is that it is not a busy place, although at times the terminal feels like a bloody railway station when 4000 people are concentrated there to get on the boats at peak time of day."

DoC and other interested parties are working on a proposal to develop sites along the highway that will enable 150,000 people (of the 730,000 that visited this year) to stay overnight. There are 10 DoC-owned campsites along the highway and Milford Sound Tourism is considering developing accommodation on land it owns on the road.

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Various routes have been proposed to cut the road journey from Queenstown but have been rejected primarily because of concerns about their impact on the environment.

Since 2011 cruise ships that visit Milford Sound pay a levy that raises nearly $2 million for regional council, Environment Southland.

But Grant says a general levy on tourists who visit Fiordland National Park is needed.

"DoC is doing an outstanding job maintaining tracks and huts but they just haven't got the resource to deal with the growth."

"If you went back five years, you would be lucky if there were 5000 people staying in the park in a season. To jump to 40,000 or 50,000 and you are still trying to do it on the same sort of resources just doesn't work. All those tracks, short walks and waterfalls, they just get hammered."