Tourism Tidal Wave
Tourism Tidal Wave

Too many international visitors fly or cruise into Auckland – then leave straight away for the world-famous destinations to the south like Rotorua and Queenstown. Now, tourism leaders are investigating how we can tell Auckland's story better.

In the long queue for taxis, Susie and Marcus Wright wait patiently with their 14-year-old son, Matthew. The French-English family have just disembarked a cruise liner and are heading straight to the rental car depot, to get the hell out of Dodge.

They'll be gone by lunchtime, halfway to Hobbiton. Auckland has nothing for them. "There's the tower – but we've looked at so many towers, Eiffel tower, CN Tower, Burj Khalifa," says Susie, wearily. "There gets a point you get panoramic view fatigue. Auckland didn't shout anything special; it offers what other cities a similar size offer."

Huddled nearby in a meeting spot beneath the long shadow of the 3500-passenger Majestic Princess, Americans Patty Villeggiante and her friend Shawn Spangler are gathering together their group of nearly 20 friends and family. They, too, are leaving Auckland today.

Patty Villagiante and Shawn Spangler.
Patty Villagiante and Shawn Spangler.

But before they check in at the airport at lunchtime for their flight home to California, they have hired a local guide to take them on an extraordinary whistle-stop tour of the city. The downtown docks, Mission Bay, the magnificent Auckland War Memorial Museum, over to the Wintergarden, busing back down to Westhaven Marina for a stroll beneath the Harbour Bridge, and then to the airport and out.

They don't want to leave without being able to say they've "done Auckland". In three hours.

So what, then, does it mean to "do" Auckland? What is Auckland?
Auckland has always struggled to tell its own story.

Queenstown has its lake and its mountains, its skiing and its apres ski. Wellington has Parliament and its wind (read that as you will). Rotorua has its thermal wonderland and a robust Māori tangata whenua that has seized control of marketing its own identity. The King Country has glow worm caves. Tirau has tin animals and tearooms. Matamata has mounds of grass with round doorways … ah, never mind.

Perhaps New Zealand's biggest city has too easily been seduced by the big numbers. Third-equal in the world for quality of life. Tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere. Most boats per capita.

With so many tourists flying in through Auckland International Airport, there has been the temptation to provide hotel beds and ferry tickets and hastily poured glasses of Waiheke wine to as many as possible – rather than first stepping back and considering what our story is and how we want to tell it.

So everywhere one looks, there are tensions between building capacity for more and more visitors, more and more cars and buses and boats – or protecting and strengthening a more enduring story of a beautiful diverse Pacific community built on stunning, clean harbours.

This year there have been colourful protests at plans to extend Queen's Wharf 90 metres out into Waitematā Harbour, to accommodate cruise liners even longer than the 330-metre Majestic Princess.

The Majestic Princess berthed in Auckland. Photo / James Morgan
The Majestic Princess berthed in Auckland. Photo / James Morgan

On Great Barrier Island, hapu Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea and local environmentalists have filed High Court papers to try to stop silt from the building of the America's Cup Village being shipped out on barges in the dead of night to be dumped in their traditional fishing areas.

Then on Waiheke, ferry and coach operator Fullers360 is the target of the protests, after shipping over three big double-decker buses that wobble perilously up and down the small island's narrow and windy roads. On at least one occasion, a bus has ended up in a ditch.

Double decker in a ditch on Waiheke Island. Photo / Gulf News
Double decker in a ditch on Waiheke Island. Photo / Gulf News

Susi Newborn is a tour guide – until she swaps her wine tour t-shirt for an anti-double-deckers one and goes dashing down the road in pursuit. "There it goes, down a narrow little road, wobbly wobbly," she fumes. "We live here, the double-deckers don't. This is our community – you don't want a bunch of grumpy-looking locals to welcome your tourists. And by everybody coming here, we are killing the golden goose."
These disagreements are not about a lack of infrastructure. They're about a failure to engage local communities in planning their own future – and Auckland's tourism leaders are first to admit it. Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) cites the double-decker dispute as a sort of report card case study: 'could do better'.

And they're determined to do so. The Destination AKL 2025 strategy, which kicked off last year, seeks to spread the costs and benefits the length of Auckland – 150km from Te Hana in the north to Waiuku in the south – by helping local communities craft their own models for tourism – whether that be the bright lights of the CBD's Lantern Festival or the world-leading Dark Sky Sanctuary of Aotea / Great Barrier Island.

Susi Newborn of Waiheke.
Susi Newborn of Waiheke.

Similarly, ATEED aims to spread the visitors across the calendar year with new events like the Elemental AKL winter festival.

And beyond that, AKL 2025 leaders are committing to integrating our tourism into a sustainable Auckland. So, for instance, Fullers360 boss Mike Horne discloses aspirations to roll out electric buses to address the concerns of Waiheke locals. And he goes further: Fullers hopes to have electric ferries plying the Waitematā and the Hauraki Gulf in time for the America's Cup in 2021.

The AKL 2025 strategy is built on six planks: Auckland should celebrate and develop those ways in which it is unique, captivating, sustainable, connected, skilled, and insightful.

And so, perhaps most important of all is to identify Auckland's unique story, and to engage local tourism workers and ambassadors to tell that story.

This year, Auckland's two biggest, uniquely Pacific events had to be called off in a security clampdown after the Christchurch shootings. But in future years, big festivals like Polyfest and Pasifika could help tell the story of the world's biggest Pacific city.

Manurewa High School principal Pete Jones would like to build on an existing partnership between his school and Auckland International Airport, to show off the city's Pacific heritage as tourists arrive.

More than 100,000 performers and spectators attended the Polyfest school festival last year. "If you go down to Polyfest and watch any of the performances, they are amazing," Jones says.

"It's the most amazing cultural experience and celebration of our Maori and Pasifika people, and if they were to put the cruise passengers on coaches down to south Auckland, they'd love it so much they'd come back every year."
That challenge – to build a city that entices and engages its visitors and keeps them coming back – is a vexed one. ATEED has accepted it's about more than just slick overseas marketing campaigns; it's about working across government and business and communities to create a destination with a story that pretty much sells itself.

For the Wright family to disembark their cruise liner and leave town immediately, bound for Hamilton Botanic Gardens, Hobbiton and Rotorua – that's something tourism leaders want to change.

For the Wrights to report back afterwards that "the traffic around Auckland reminded us of the gridlock we used to experience everywhere in the UK" is something all Aucklanders want to change.

One ambassador already telling Auckland's story is Louise Young, the local tour guide who's taking Patty Villeggiante and her group of Californian friends and family on their three-hour whistlestop city tour.

Three hours is not ideal, but Young has a surprise.

Having just finished their stroll through the Auckland Domain, watching the kids in their cricket whites, they're now arriving at Westhaven Marina to admire the yachts skipping across the waves and beneath the Harbour Bridge. They seemed a little downtrodden on disembarking this morning, but now they're all big hair and big smiles.

It is then that Young breaks out a tin of chocolate-topped biscuits for the troops. She'd been up making them the night before. The tin says Anzac, the biscuits are Afghans – either way, this is Kiwi as.

And the tourists love it. You may get tall towers in every major city in the world, but you won't get home-made Afghan biscuits.

"We call them cookies, you call them biscuits, but they were incredible," says Villeggiante. "That, and those kids pitching at cricket – we'll be back!"

This is the third in a four-part series on the future of Auckland tourism. Tomorrow: Bright lights and dark nights, our communities work together to develop a new kind of tourism.

• Monday: Is Auckland Ready?
• Tuesday: The people and skills shortage facing Auckland