Travel writer Sarah Bennett gives her view from the road as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment lays down the gauntlet on tourism.
For nearly 20 years, my husband and I have been professional travel writers specialising in New Zealand. Along the way, we've met thousands of travellers, tourism operators and everyday locals. It's been awesome.
However as the years have passed, we've become increasingly uncomfortable about the way tourism is changing Aotearoa - its natural places, its communities and its culture. Unchecked growth is both undesirable and unsustainable. Now, Covid-19 has given us breathing space to take a good, hard look at tourism and work out how it can be done better, for our country and for the climate.
On Thursday, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, released an eagerly awaited follow-up to "Pristine, Popular … Imperilled?", his 2019 report on the environmental consequences of the projected growth in tourism. "Not 100% – but four steps closer to sustainable tourism" presents four key policy proposals to address some of the industry's most pressing challenges.
Upton's report is insightful, bold and far-reaching, and targets many of the problems we've seen. My hope is that it leads to action before the hordes start flooding back, as inevitably they will.
Here's my take on his recommendations.
Up in the air
Global tourism's biggest challenge is its high carbon footprint. This is a particularly wicked problem for Aotearoa because we're so far out on the wing. Fly return to Europe and you're responsible for 3 tonnes of CO2. According to experts writing in the online journal "Nature Sustainability" in 2018, a fair carbon budget per person for an entire year is only 1.6 tonnes.
Major airlines and airports have driven New Zealand's recent tourism boom and benefited greatly from it, yet none has demonstrated the commitment to emissions reduction needed to offset the continued growth in traffic. It's all well and good having an eco-friendly passenger terminal or compostable packaging for face masks, but that's not going to reduce the use of jet fuel.
Alternative fuels are a long way off, so reducing emissions means reducing air miles. Restoring our peat bogs ain't gonna cut it in the face of a return to pre-Covid long-haul passenger numbers.
The answer is essentially a carbon tax on jet fuel. Vexingly, however, international aviation agreements pretty much veto introducing one.
In his most far-reaching proposal, Upton suggests we introduce a distance-based departure tax reflecting the cost of emissions, with revenue funnelled back into R&D. The Pacific Islands would also get a share of the proceeds to deal with their pressing climate-related crises. Their future is now.
We could then spin off this courageous manoeuvre to attract "like-minded countries willing to take more ambitious action on the issue". Create a collective. Help save the world. Consider me in.
I suspect a departure tax would not be widely supported within the industry. With so many tourism businesses scrambling to survive, any additional taxes would be seen as a barrier to coming here.
I'm not convinced of that. Travellers have never been surer about where they want to go, and increasingly that's somewhere safe, spectacular and environmentally sustainable. Aotearoa is the sweet spot. Getting people to pay won't be the problem. It'll be getting them to actually leave.
In light of the urgent need to decarbonise our world, a departure tax looks like the least we can do.
Flushing out illegal freedom campers
The endlessly gushing stream of horror stories may have all but dried up since the internationals stopped coming, but freedom camping trouble is bound to spring back up once the borders re-open.
The problem centres on the convoy of small vans and people-movers passing themselves off as self-contained when they're not. Is that guy really doing his business in that porta potty crammed into a corner of his beaten-up Nissan Bongo? Would it be rude to ask?
Word on the street is that fake "self-contained" windscreen stickers are easy to get, too, so it's no wonder some freedom camping areas have become so grim.
In a total no-brainer, Upton suggests we tighten up the self-contained certification, requiring vehicles to have a permanently plumbed-in toilet plus tanks for grey and black water.
He also suggests making a single government agency, either Waka Kotahi (NZTA) or the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), responsible for ensuring vehicles are consistently up to standard and registered on a national database. That would make it easier for DoC and councils to enforce compliance.
Rental companies should play a greater role in collecting fines, he adds, although in reality, most offenders are in private vehicles bought from other travellers. But at least this would reinforce a message that the days of illegal freedom camping are all but done.
As a professional camper myself, I'm confident in predicting that these measures would drastically reduce the number of ragtag sleeper-vans littering our reserves. They'd also encourage more visitors to hire a campervan, or stay in a holiday park or other accommodation, in turn delivering communities more dough.
Driving sustainability through government funding
Not everyone is happy with the number of visitors to their region. Nor are they happy with the amount of public funding spent on facilities for them. "The more tourists we get, the poorer we get," so one saying goes.
Many of these amenities benefit communities, of course – a new cycle trail or walkway, perhaps, or free Wi-Fi downtown. But it's worth considering how much say residents actually have in what gets funded. I agree with Upton that it's not enough.
So, here's an idea. Make any government funding for tourism-related infrastructure contingent on councils having asked their communities what they want. Chances are they'd choose projects that would deliver social and environmental benefits, as well as catering to visitors.
Upton suggests this could embed sustainable tourism values through Destination Management Plans. A fairly recent initiative, these plans are produced by the country's 30-odd regional tourism offices under guidelines prepared by tourism's primary funder, MBIE.
Although a big step in the right direction, they tend to bark up the wrong tree by focusing, as Upton says, on "accommodating growth and improving visitor experience rather than addressing host community or environmental concerns". They're less about real management, and more about marketing.
To refocus, the commissioner suggests funding conditions should compel councils to take ownership of destination management planning, integrate it more closely with long-term plans and widen the tourism conversation through advisory groups, workshops, surveys and suchlike.
Upton is bang on the money here. As the Barcelona Declaration goes, "Better places to live, better places to visit."
Rationing national park paradise
Upton also addresses the "slow but persistent erosion of wildness and natural quiet" in parts of the conservation estate. Hordes of day-trippers crowding Milford Sound. A conga line of hikers climbing over the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
One suggested remedy is limiting numbers in certain parts of national parks. This effectively takes place already on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, for example, where restrictions at the trailhead car park force walkers to take a shuttle. There are other places where limits could be imposed, the Milford Road being one of the most obvious.
Another way to limit numbers is to charge more – or even something – for national park experiences. DoC already charges overseas visitors more for staying in Great Walk huts, for example. This does double duty, earning more revenue from fewer visitors while making more space for Kiwis.
Conversations I've had suggest a growing appetite for charging overseas visitors to enjoy our national parks. It's worth considering that it costs $2295 to see a gorilla in Rwanda, and $43 to visit Australia's Kakadu National Park. A kea, cave wētā or Gondwanaland forest? More or less free.
This brings us to concessions, the permits required to run commercial activity on the conservation estate.
Upton deems that DoC's existing allocation system favours older operators, stifling the competition and innovation that would likely lead to higher concession fees and better environmental outcomes.
He suggests a tender process could be used in some instances, with mana whenua given "a certain degree of preference". Overall, the gist is to foster closer partnership between DoC and concessionaires. Sounds like a great idea.
As DoC has wrestled with ballooning visitor numbers, it's been hamstrung by the vintage legislation that governs it: the National Parks Act 1980, Reserves Act 1977 and Conservation Act 1987. Upton is just one voice in a growing chorus: it's time these were all revisited.
The Civil Aviation Act is also in his sights. Before Covid-19, planes and helicopters were brassing people off with all their buzzing about. Upton suggests the act be amended to keep the peace.
Towards a 100% pure future
With so many businesses in trouble, it's a difficult time to take any steps towards sustainable tourism, but we stand to lose a lot more than just money.
Upton's proposals are well-timed and pragmatic. I sense he's carefully picked his battles while holding other intel on plans afoot.
Maybe this explains why he hasn't addressed cruise-ship emissions. Even the most efficient ships emit three to four times more CO2 per passenger mile than a jet, and that's far from its only ill. Can we talk about that?
In a matter of weeks, the Tourism Futures Taskforce will release its own report. It ought to apply yet more pressure for the Government to act.
Aotearoa could well flourish as one of the world's most genuinely sustainable destinations. To borrow the words of business journalist Rod Oram, the tourism industry's greatest opportunities lie in tackling its greatest liabilities.
Sarah Bennett is the editor of "100% Pure Future: New Zealand Tourism Renewed" (BWB Texts, December 2020), a collection of essays on sustainable tourism by Dave Bamford, Susanne Becken, Hugh Logan, Rod Oram, Raewyn Peart, David Simmons, Erna Spijkerbosch, Te Ngaehe Wanikau and Tony Wheeler.