New Zealanders could become increasingly divided in their attitudes to the rising number of visitors, a tourism researcher is warning, unless action is taken to manage their impact.

Professor Regina Scheyvens, co-director of Massey University's Pacific Research and Policy Centre, says over-tourism is a serious issue in hotspots around the world and there are risks of the same thing happening in this country.

She is the convenor of an Auckland conference on sustainable tourism this week and says it is not just the impact on the environment that New Zealand needs to be aware of.

''It's really easy to look at tourism as being this wonderful glossy industry," says Scheyvens. "We see one side of the postcard - it's appealing and attractive, but there can be negative consequences for employees in the industry, local communities in the places they go if we don't plan it really well.''

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Scheyvens says an example of too much of a good thing is the Tongariro Crossing, where the flood of visitors is making the experience uncomfortable and potentially hazardous for walkers.

Between 2013 and 2018, international tourist arrivals in New Zealand grew by 1.2 million to a total of 3.8 million.

During the 12 months to March last year, tourists spent almost $40 billion, and the industry now provides one in every 12 jobs.

Scheyvens says that while this growth is seen as positive for the country's development, many New Zealanders are ambivalent: 39 per cent have expressed concern over the negative impacts of the growth in international visitors in a Tourism Industry Aotearoa survey released at the end of last year.

The same survey has found the proportion of New Zealanders who believe the predicted international visitor growth is "too much" has been trending upwards since December 2015. It has now increased to 47 per cent of New Zealanders.

According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, visitor arrivals to New Zealand are expected to grow by 4.6 per cent a year, reaching 5.1 million visitors in 2024.

''Governments are very tempted by the economic returns of tourism - people have been aware of these issues for a long time but they kind of turn a blind eye to them - they add a few drops of green food colouring instead of thinking more radically about how we do tourism.''

The picture postcard is not always the reality for locals, says a tourism researcher. Photo / Supplied
The picture postcard is not always the reality for locals, says a tourism researcher. Photo / Supplied

She says there is always a tension because there are some people in a community who have businesses and get income from tourists, and others who feel their towns are being overrun. Akaroa, now host to cruise ships, is an example.

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''We're likely to see more divided communities if we don't put measures in place,'' Scheyvens warns.

In spite of some perceptions that New Zealand is becoming too crowded, Auckland Airport figures from 2017 showed the country is well down the list of visitors per locals (0.8 visitors to each New Zealander, in 61st place) and even further down when measured by visitors per square kilometre (14, in 112th place).

Scheyvens has studied tourism's impact on Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, the Maldives and in southern Africa. While she hasn't done specific research on problems New Zealand tourism workers may face, she says they do face risks.

''I would say that what we have seen in the last three or four years have been the social pressures and people saying enough is enough and people in the tourism sector getting exploited,'' she says.

''It may not always be the case in New Zealand but we have to be very careful that industries that are reliant on migrant labour, a lot of young people and women in the workforce that their rights are being respected.''

She says reports of poor accommodation in Queenstown for tourism workers and Auckland restaurant workers being exploited are worrying.

New Zealanders are also finding it more expensive to travel domestically.

''If tourism is really well planned by a governments and they think about how local people can access the benefits of their natural and cultural attractions by making them affordable and accessible, people [overseas tourists] are more likely to get a really good visitor welcome,'' she says.

About 140 people, including tourism industry groups and government officials, from 30 countries are at the conference.

Scheyvens says Australia is also feeling the affects of over-tourism this summer. The Guinness World Record-certified whitest sand beach in the world - Hyams Beach - has turned away thousands of potential visitors during the Christmas and New Year period.

There are only 110 permanent residents and 400 parking spaces, but up to 5000 tourists wanting to visit the beach each day during summer.

''These experiences reflect the pressures and tensions tourism brings to many parts of the world, and the need for better ways of regulating tourist activity and capturing the gains from tourism. It is clear that most people do not wish to see an end to tourism. But they do want the industry to be far more sustainable.''

Whale watching off the Kaikoura coast. Photo / Supplied
Whale watching off the Kaikoura coast. Photo / Supplied

Scheyvens says the term "sustainable tourism" has long been criticised for its lack of clout – and the way it can be seen as merely "sustaining tourism" - but there is a way forward.

In 2017 the United Nations set 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), ratified by 193 countries and set to guide global development through to 2030.

The SDGs require governments, civil society and business interests to play their part in creating a more ''sustainable world''.

The SDGs can help to guide the tourism industry to make more sustainable choices, Scheyvens says. For example, a strategy by hotels, cruise ships and restaurants to buy as much fresh produce from local farmers as possible would shorten the supply chain and save food miles.

What we think of tourism

• Nearly all (95 per cent) of New Zealanders agree that international tourism is good for New Zealand

•Over the years there has been an increase in the proportion of New Zealanders who think that the number of tourists is too high - now at 21 per cent

•However, this trend has now stabilised, and the prevailing view (45%) remains that New Zealand attracts just the right number of international visitors

•The percentage who think that international tourism puts too much pressure on New Zealand has been trending upwards since December 2015, but is now stable at 39 per cent.

•This view is driven by three key factors: (a) perceptions that New Zealand lacks infrastructure to support the growing number of tourists; (b) perceived adverse impact of tourism on the environment; (c) perceived impact on road congestion and safety

•Queenstown and Auckland are consistently seen as the areas under the most pressure

•The proportion of New Zealanders who believe the predicted international visitor growth is "too much" has been trending upwards since December 2015. It has now increased from 30 per cent to 47 per cent of Kiwis

- Source: Tourism Industry Aotearoa survey of 1080 adults