Imagine being able to view the pristine native bush of Okere Falls and the rushing rapids and waterfalls of the Kaituna River in a way no others have. Well, you may not have to imagine it for much longer if an application to build a new tourism venture at Okere Falls is approved. Stephanie Arthur-Worsop reports.
A new tourism venture at Okere Falls could generate up to 30 new jobs in its first year - if approved.
Okere Adventures, a joint venture between Rotorua Rafting's Sam Sutton and Māori landowners from Ngāti Hinerangi-Ngāti Hinekiri, has applied to set up a 1km-long zipline activity within the Okere Scenic Reserve.
The application is for six ziplines that will be reached from 12 platforms. Tours of up to 10 people will run from 8am to 5pm, then 7pm to 9pm, weather permitting, seven days a week.
The guided tours, which will take about three hours, will progress through the forest at ground and canopy levels and will follow a walking trail and the zipline.
The application says the zipline will not affect the view of the waterfalls or river from any of the existing viewpoints on the walking path.
The public can have their say on the application, with submissions to the Department of Conservation closing at 5pm on September 18.
Okere Adventures says its primary focus is on sustainable tourism and enhancing the scenic reserve and the proposed venture will have limited impact on the environment.
No major earthworks will be needed, with the ziplines designed to work with the natural landform and any minor adverse ecological effects will be mitigated by intensive, sustained pest control and indigenous revegetation.
"The proposal has been designed to minimise the area of vegetation disturbance by utilising existing tracks as much as practicable," the application reads.
Rotorua businesses finalists in Sustainable Business Awards
OGO Rotorua takes away a top title at the Tourism Operator awards
Government invests $20m to help reopen Rotorua Museum
"Indigenous planting on the true right side of the river will be undertaken as part of tours and this will expand the area of vegetation cover.
"The community group Predator Free Okere Falls is working towards eradication of rats, possums and mustelids in the area by 2025 with traps. The proposal can bolster the efforts of this group towards the common goal."
As well as environmental considerations, the application states the ziplines have been designed to avoid disturbing culturally-significant sites.
"Consultation with iwi commenced early in the project and consequently a partnership has been formed with the neighbouring Māori landowners and written approval provided by Ngāti Hinerangi and Ngāti Hinekiri.
"This has allowed tangata whenua considerations to be incorporated into the proposal.
"The Māori landowners of the surrounding rural land are to financially benefit from the activity and the tours allow the rich cultural history and value of the area to be expressed to visitors."
Consultation with neighbours, DoC and NZTA was undertaken with no opposition noted.
The new venture will run out of the existing Rotorua Rafting building and parking for about 20 vehicles will be created near the check-in area.
Applicant Sam Sutton told the Rotorua Daily Post he was excited about the prospect.
"I grew up in Okere Falls, so I'm well aware of how people use the area. We wanted to create a product that not only showcased the area but enhanced it.
"The [zipline] idea came to me while on the river, I realised with the rafting, we weren't actually contributing anything to the area, other than giving people a great time.
"Canopy Tours has done such an amazing job in terms of conservation and sustainable tourism that I started thinking about ways we could do something similar."
Sutton said his vision was to become a leader in tourism sustainability.
"Not wanting to interrupt the natural beauty of the area really forced us to go out of the box in terms of ways to make the venture as environmentally-friendly as possible. For example, we didn't want to contribute that whirring sound you get with ziplines so we ended up sourcing a cable from Germany that will reduce the noise by 66 per cent.
"One of the elements I am most excited about is being able to provide free transport for locals to and from Okere Falls. We will be running empty vans to and from town a couple of times a day, so it made sense to offer a free service to locals as there's no public transport out here [Okere Falls]. It's zero cost zero emissions and is beneficial to the broader community."
Sutton said there would be between 20 and 30 direct employment opportunities in the venture's first year.
He hopes to have the zipline up and running by early next year but says this may have to be pushed out by a few months given summer's a busy time for tourism.
Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button said the company welcomed the growth and development of the ecotourism sector in the region.
"In Rotorua, we all have the privilege of living, working and playing in a beautiful natural environment – and it is the envy of people from across the world.
"There is no reason why Rotorua couldn't become known as an international centre of excellence for ziplining, and the addition of new, high-quality operators will help create that perception and awareness, as well as a stronger industry."
Destination Rotorua chief executive Michelle Templer said it was great to see the principles of kaitiakitanga reflected in so many of the city's products.
"Authentic experiences with a strong conservation and sustainability focus provide value for visitors, the environment and the local community."
Okere Falls Store owner Sarah Uhl described the zipline as a "pretty awesome idea".
"Sam [Sutton] is a highly energetic person and exactly right for this type of venture.
"To be able to make money to help the environment but not impact on the environment is not only cool but also very clever."