The clash between Great Barrier Island residents and officials over dumping America's Cup Village silt could be seen as an impediment to developing international events – but rather, it is a small community taking ownership of its own tourism future.
It can be a long way between drinks on an island as big at Great Barrier. One night in 1999, young Dutch backpacker Hilde Hoven and her friends had to walk an hour to the pub, because they couldn't find a ride.
There are just six public lights on Great Barrier Island, fewer back then. The only real light is the moon and stars. Astronomers say that without the "light pollution" of the city, the naked eye can see close on 5000 stars in the cosmos that arches over the remote Gulf Island.
"To be honest I can't remember that I looked up," she laughs now. But that night she "chatted up" a local bloke and he offered her and her friends a ride back.
"I do remember that once I started going out with Roger, I did spend many a night looking up and thinking wow, it doesn't look anything like this in Europe," Hoven says.
"It's just dwarfing. It makes me feel like a tiny little speck. Almost all the stars we can see are within our galaxy, and there are an infinite number of other galaxies. Our closest star would take 10,000 years to get to, at the speed we can currently travel."
For years, people on the Barrier have talked about their spectacular night sky. What is notable about the island's international recognition as a Dark Sky Sanctuary is that the inspiration to celebrate the night skies was the residents' – not imposed by some cashed-up visiting entrepreneur or big bureaucracy.
Yes, government leadership is important. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was in China this week working hard to woo back Chinese tourists, ahead of the China-NZ Year of Tourism, and that is welcomed by tourism operators.
But it is this new community leadership that is one of the most exciting aspects of a new approach to tourism emerging across Auckland and New Zealand. In part, it is driven by a fear of crowds of tourists destroying the very essence of a community. Fingers are pointed at Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik, even Queenstown, as examples of "over-touristed" destinations.
Last month, Queenstown Lakes District Council announced a referendum on introducing a visitor levy to help fund "desperately needed infrastructure". The pressure on 24,000 ratepayers to fund a premier international destination was "unsustainable", said mayor Jim Boult. "No other city or district in New Zealand experiences the ratio of 34 international visitors per resident. By comparison the Auckland ratio is one to one and Christchurch is three to one."
Auckland is watching and learning. Tourism leadership group chairman Martin Snedden says if growth in the numbers of visitors continues to outstrip the development of basic city infrastructure, then tourists' experience deteriorates. "And residents get thoroughly pissed off – tourism becomes something that locals come to hate."
"I've got a daughter living in Queenstown," he adds. "She moved there because she's an adventures girl, she loves the outdoors. The first day she drove to work it took her 45 minutes.
"She phoned me and said, 'I didn't come here to spend 45 minutes in a car. I'm not going to stay here for that.' And she isn't staying."
So the communities are taking back ownership – and they're shaping offerings that will entice fewer tourists, more discerning, and willing to pay more for the right experience.
Much of the process of civilisation over the past couple of millennia has been about chasing the bright lights of the city. Bigger, brighter, louder. And that's fine for Auckland CBD.
But now, instead of building glitzy resorts and vineyards and restaurants, Great Barrier people believe they have discovered a darkness, a quietness, a stillness. And they can sell that to visitors.
More than 20 years after Hoven fell in love with the island, she and her partner Roger have brought up their family on the island. When the community won Sanctuary status, she realised there was nobody offering to show it off to visitors, so she and another local woman decided to set up Good Heavens. Their tour company is more ambitious than most: rather than just showing off the local sights, they offer visitors a tour of the entire galaxy.
"I grew up living rurally in Europe, and you could always hear the buzzing of cars somewhere in the background," Hoven says. "Here, there could be complete silence."
Hoven was among the locals who worked with Dr Carolyn Deuchar and Professor Simon Milne from the NZ Tourism Research Institute, based at AUT, to craft a strategy for the island's tourism future. The resulting five-year plan, which kicked off last year, is not about bending over backwards for as many tourists as possible. It's about locals and visitors working together to ensure everyone has a rewarding and sustainable experience.
Deuchar says: "When we have a focus on tourism – whether it's on Waiheke or Queenstown or Wanaka – that is only on the business community and economic development, then we forget the community, the people that live there. That is a really dangerous scenario for us.
"There is talk of over-tourism – that is the buzzword of the tourism industry. Take Waiheke: we've gone out to the world and said, hey, come on over at whatever cost. There was very much a focus on volume, the more visitors the better."
"Now, that is changing."
The America's Cup hits town in 2021. It will be the biggest event in Auckland since – well, since the last America's Cup here. Already, emotions are running high – and not just among excitable yachting fans.
Great Barrier Island's Kelly Moana Klink and her hapu Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea have lodged a High Court appeal against the dumping of 250,000 cubic metres a year of "marine sludge" – starting with material dredged to make space for the new America's Cup Village.
This is the new challenge: balancing "Big Tourism" against small-scale, community-based initiatives of the sort Deuchar champions.
Remember the public fascination with the so-called rowdy tourists, wreaking havoc in January? "When we have visitors that come and don't look after the place the way that we do," says Deuchar, "then we feel threatened."
Well, sometimes it's not overseas tourists. Sometimes it's rowdy local visitors. Sometimes it's rowdy local business or government.
Coastal Resources Ltd has been granted consent to dump the dredgings 20km off the east coast of Great Barrier Island. "Those are all our fishing grounds, we know them all," Klink says. "They're dumping it right on a reef where the hāpuku and matiri are."
"We're not excited about the America's Cup – that's what's causing all the damage out here. It's going to destroy all our sea-life."
To be clear, Klink strongly supports tourism and hospitality. Her family is involved in businesses running stargazing tours, making smoked mussel paté and renting out cars.
"But they need to talk with us," she says. "We're here on the island. We know what works here. We know how to make do."
The Destination AKL 2025 tourism strategy has begun to identify high-value tourists who might pay for the unique experiences our communities can offer. Auckland plans to target them by developing a regional food tourism marketing strategy, an international student visitor plan, strengthening business events,targeting cruise passengers and promoting Auckland's golf, equine, marine and screen product and capability.
This doesn't just mean attracting tourists to the Jack Nicklaus-designed Royal Auckland and Grange golf club and then enjoying a silver service lunch at the elegant columnated pavilion afterwards. It means identifying visitors who are looking for a unique experience.
For instance, a facet of the new Aotea/Great Barrier Island tourism strategy that Klink supports is a plan to create a visitor pledge, to "live like a local". To understand the opportunities and constraints of a remote island with limited infrastructure; to buy local products, to use local services, to support local community activities like the local Monday movie night at the Barrier Social Club, to participate in the community ...
This is not shaping the tourism product to meet visitors' demands. The customer is not always right.
It's about enticing those tourists who will appreciate what Auckland's diverse communities offer.
So here are three critical ways that Auckland's tourism leaders and industry are trying to spread the love.
First, working with communities like Aotea / Great Barrier Island to develop their own, unique tourism strategies, so that tourism can be dispersed around Auckland. Already, ATEED and the Tourism Research Institute have worked with Matakana, Puhoi-to-Pakiri and North-West Rodney, Hibiscus and Bays, Ōrākei, Franklin, and Manukau Harbour communities to draw up their own plans.
Ferry company Fullers and land transport agency Auckland Transport have both been trying to open up new travel routes. AT has increased its bus services to Warkworth and beyond, to Kelly Tarlton's, to Auckland Zoo and to the airport. The agency has trialled a ride-sharing scheme to Devonport over the past few months, and chief executive Shane Ellison wants to try it for the West Coast beaches as well.
All of that eases the pressure on Waiheke, Mission Bay and the traditional hotspots.
Secondly, Māori and Pasifika communities, whose art and culture and heritage is the thing that most distinguishes Auckland from other harbour cities around the world, are being invited to lead the way in telling the city's story.
Twenty-two-year-old law student Te Wainuiarua Poa has been working as a guide at Waiheke Island adventure tourism company EcoZip over summer. She affiliates to Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Porou and Te Atihaunui-A-Paparangi.
"When I do my tours I try my hardest to promote Te Ao Maori as much as I can, sharing just the small knowledge that I have, and every time I have visitors saying how thankful they are."
"And then I've also had other indigenous cultures, people from first nations, saying how proud they are to see indigenous people being at the forefront of a tourism industry – and the fact that our country is allowing opportunities and spaces for us as indigenous people to actually grow and be the face of this country."
Poa argues tourism is "the best place" for Māori and other indigenous peoples, because it allows them to celebrate their close relationship with the land and seas, and play a kaitiakitanga (guardianship) role.
"We're very lucky here in Aotearoa, we're very lucky to have that space."
Thirdly, by hook or by crook, ATEED, Fullers 360 and other infrastructure managers are ensuring the events and attractions that bring people to Auckland are spread across 12 months, not all concentrated between Christmas and Waitangi Day. An example is the new Elemental AKL festival which will run right through July, featuring big light installations in the city's parks and waterfronts, and promising vibrant music, theatre, art and Māori and Pasifika performances – not to mention a range of new food shows.
Another example is Sculpture on the Gulf, which finished last week. The biennial Waiheke Festival had previously been held in January-February, but this year lead sponsors ATEED and Fullers insisted it be pushed back to March to ease the pressure on the island's over-loaded infrastructure in summer.
ATEED destinations general manager Steve Armitage and Fullers chief executive Mike Horne both confirmed they told the festival's organisers to change the dates, or they'd lose their sponsorship (an estimated $100,000). "It was a robust conversation about what the pros and cons were," says Horne, "and they're a sensible group of people so they sat down and they took that on board."
Shifting the festival back to the "shoulder season" had the anticipated result: paying visitor numbers were just 28,000 this year, down from 40,000 in 2017, though it's still expected to break even.
The philosophical acceptance of that volume decline is, perhaps, evidence of how Auckland's tourism has matured beyond just chasing the dollars.
Sculpture on the Gulf chair Caroline Forsyth says it's not all about the head count: "Two years ago we got the numbers but we put a huge strain on services and the community."
So in this changing era of Auckland tourism, what did success mean to her?
"We still got very good critical acclaim this year, and we expect it will have had a positive impact on local businesses that are usually winding down in March."
But it was bigger than just tourism. The event drew in the community – and that was illustrated by the decision to freeze Anton Ford's cornerstone interactive sculpture "Pen to Peace to Peaceful Pen" for a day, to remember the dead in the mosque shootings.
That moving, changing sculpture, depicting Parihaka's white feather of peace and remembering the colonial raid many Taranaki Māori still regard as a terrorist attack, was brought into sharp relief by the assault on New Zealand's Muslims.
"On Friday, out of respect for what happened in Christchurch, we agreed the feather of Parihaka would remain unchanged throughout the day," Forsyth says. "And that was, I think, spine-tingling for me."
CLARIFICATION: The project developer (Auckland Council and NZ Government controlled authority - Wynyard Edge Alliance or WEA,) says they have finished disposing of 18,000 cubic metres of clean dredge at the northern disposal area 25km east of Great Barrier Island, and no longer plan to dispose of the 70,000 cubic metres of America's Cup village debris that the Environmental Protection Authority consented to Coastal Resources Limited. Any additional material would either be disposed of under the existing consent or sent to landfill. Auckland Council are not party to the current High Court appeal.