Images of terrorism in other countries are making New Zealand - and its network of national parks - more attractive to an increasingly wealthy and adventurous group of international travellers. Department of Conservation boss Lou Sanson says international events are helping fuel one of the biggest tourism booms in New Zealand's history. "Every time Isis does another attack in Europe, we become more attractive. Our image as the youngest land, the last discovered, the loneliest and the loveliest - the brand gets stronger and stronger," Sanson says. But tourists aren't just being deterred from other destinations; they are also being lured here by this country's beauty. Sanson says a gorgeous picture of flowers above a glacial lake along the Hooker Valley in Aoraki-Mount Cook had an almost immediate effect. "Tourism New Zealand did some beautiful photos of a flowers with a lake and mountains in the background. That exploded and that site went from 30,000 to 70,000 [visitors a year] just from that one image." The department then had to find $2 million to upgrade paving on the track and other facilities. Likewise, when higher-profile pictures of Prince Harry at Ulva Island near Stewart Island went around the world in 2015, there was an immediate response from more people wanting to get there. "We are rapidly becoming one of the world's great nature destinations," Sanson says. In 2013 the Department of Conservation (DoC) set the goal of lifting the percentage of visitors to New Zealand who visit a National Park - from 30 per cent to 50 per cent in 10 years. As tourism bounced back from a post-global financial crisis slump, it reached that goal in 18 months and now 70 per cent of hikers on the department's Great Walks are from overseas. READ MORE: • The Great Tourism Squeeze: Tourists cruise into Akaroa in droves • The Great Tourism Squeeze: Squeeze on over tourism funding • The Great Tourism Squeeze: Milford off track but visitors pour in "Worldwide, there is a trend. With increasing urbanisation, the value of parks, our coasts our rivers our lakes [is increasing]. The world is falling in love with them," he says. "The value of nature is getting much higher; we're getting a premium." New Zealand national parks are experiencing the same growth as places such as Tasmania, Chile and Argentina and Japan. The number of visitors to European parks was up 50 per cent in the past three years.
Giving Kiwis a breakIn DoC's Wellington headquarters last month, Sanson explained that the need for a national debate about our facilities was as strong as ever. The "tourism pipeline," was pouring more visitors through Waitomo, Rotorua, Mount Ruapehu, Aoraki Mt Cook, Milford and the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. The natural habitat itself wasn't under threat through the weight of numbers, it was facilities: toilets, carparks and roads, that were under strain. "We're going to have to think quite strategically about that pipeline," says Sanson. "When you go to a million visitors a year in those national parks it's quite a different model." Income from tourism could pay to eradicate pests by 2050, DoC's ambitious primary aim, which would create an even more sought-after New Zealand in something of vicious circle.
Every time Isis does another attack in Europe we become more attractive. Our image as the youngest land, the last discovered, the loneliest and the loveliest - the brand gets stronger and stronger."Tourism helps pay for one of the biggest challenges that we've got in New Zealand and that is turning around our biodiversity decline." Charging for access to parks - common overseas - would require a change to the legislation which established DoC 30 years ago but there are now plans within the rules to charge more to use huts, where charges now range between $32 and $54 a night. Hut fees on seven of the nine Great Walks will increase - on one of them to $70 a night -and DoC this week confirmed it is investigating a differential system where overseas visitors will be charged more. Raising revenue could also be a simple tweak in some places. For example, DoC and the Tasman District Council charge $1 for everyone who goes across the beach at Abel Tasman National Park.
If we charged two or three dollars we could probably keep that whole park free of stoats, rats and possums in perpetuity and people would have this whole enhanced experience of magnificent beaches and forests teaming with bellbirds, tui and kea.This includes a review of the Conservation Act 1987 (which she says is not fit for purpose) so that self-drive rental and campervan visitors can be captured (which they currently aren't and causing huge stress at DoC carparks and huts), with on the spot fines for those found on the DoC estate illegally. "Not a single prosecution has occurred since 2009 when the Bus and Coach Association entered their concession agreement and in 2012 when the Tourism Export Council entered theirs with DoC. "All that is happening is DoC increasing compliance with those already compliant, rather than having the resources and legislation available to go after those that are knowingly operating illegally."
How a New Zealand tragedy fuelled the boomDoC got a massive funding boost after the 1995 collapse of a viewing platform at Cave Creek, in Paparoa National Park on the West Coast. Fourteen people were killed in the tragedy, found to have been caused by faulty construction and systemic failures. Sanson says a $350 million funding boost followed. "I think the tragedy of Cave Creek has given New Zealand one of the biggest legacies of one of the best visitor safety management systems and infrastructure systems in the world," he says. "That funding largely built the huts, tracks and boardwalks that the world is beating a path to now." A natural phenomenon, the eruption of Mt Ruapehu in 1995-96, led to the creation of a new walk and a new concept. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-day part of what was to become a "Great Walk." It was created when Ruapehu erupted and the department needed to keep people away from that mountain and steer them to the other peaks, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. "So we invented this walk and named it a Great Walk," Sanson says.
Tourism helps pay for one of the biggest challenges that we've got in New Zealand and that is turning around our biodiversity decline.Other walks in the area are just as good but "Tongariro has the reputation of being one of the greatest walks in the world. That was created out of a crisis." In association with Air New Zealand, the department further developed the Great Walk brand. It was a marketing idea to arrest the declining use of National Parks, and to excite Kiwis. "The real magic was the partnership with Air New Zealand and the exposure that gave to that brand has lifted it to an international premium," says Sanson. Other countries are trying to replicate it and it has almost become too successful. At some times of the year, on the most popular longer tracks - among them Milford, Routeburn and the Heaphy - huts sell out in hours because of demand. Sanson says he met an upset Swiss tourist this summer at an information centre in Christchurch, distraught that she had missed out on a place on the Routeburn Track and not aware of the other superb trails nearby which didn't have the "Great Walk" label.
DoC does need to look at its pricing. Overseas guests are astounded they don't have to pay more to use the facilities.His is the Cascade Saddle between the West Matukituki and Dart valleys in Mount Aspiring National Park. "I love to pitch a tent there by the alpine tarns and have the whole place to myself," he says. "I imagine if I went up there and found 10 tents I would feel differently about that place."