Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton won't be alone in questioning whether our booming tourism industry is something of a mixed blessing.
Mr Upton's recent report, which will soon be followed by a second containing recommendations, warns that the industry might be in the process of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, given the pressure increasing numbers of visitors is bringing to bear on the very attractions that lure them here. Those pressures most obviously manifest themselves in what politicians call inadequate or lack of infrastructure — generally meaning toilets — but more fundamentally apply to our natural attractions, not the least of those being the silence, or at least lack of man-made noise, that is becoming increasingly difficult to find elsewhere.
Tourism is an important contributor to the Far North's economy year-round, and the coastal Bay of Islands does a very good job of catering for that. There are fewer signs of a tourist invasion further north, apart from the daily sight of tour buses heading to and from Cape Reinga, but that all changes over the peak of the summer holiday season.
The bulk of those who head for Te Hiku at this time of year are New Zealanders, many of whom have been holidaying here for years, if not generations, and in many cases have family here, but the pressure certainly seems to be building.
Late on the morning of Christmas Eve, traffic south from the Pak'nSave roundabout in Kaitaia had come to a halt for more than a kilometre, stretching almost as far as Grigg's Corner, and at this time of year it only takes one driver having difficulty getting into or out of a parking place in the town's main street to cause the sort of chaos that Aucklanders seem to complain about all year round.
Many locals stay away from the more popular beaches at this time of year, waiting for the crowds to thin a little, and those who have absolutely no idea of beach etiquette to go home, but that is a small price to pay for the money these visitors spend. Many Far North businesses do a good job — better than they did in the days when Kaitaia, at least, closed down over Christmas — of making hay while the sun shines. But the days of grinning and bearing it might be just about over.
Certainly the Waitai Raharuhi Whānau has had enough of dangerous and irresponsible driving at Waikato Bay, adjacent to the Department of Conservation camp ground at Maitai Bay. The trust, which has every legal and moral right to do so, locked the gate giving vehicular access to Waikato Bay, thus preventing the launching of boats, on December 19, and plans to keep it locked until January 30. Anyone who is camping there will now have to tow their boat to Rangiputa, Whatuwhiwhi or Tokerau Beach to get it into the water.
Locking the gate has not been universally popular, but appears to have been a last resort. DoC ranger supervisor Haina Tamehana said last week that local whānau had for some years been asking drivers to park their vehicles in the campground carpark instead of on the beach, with little success. Last year had been particularly bad, with motorbikes and vehicles "hooning" up and down the beach to the point where it was becoming increasingly dangerous for other beachgoers.
Flyers had been handed out in January this year to warn boaties that access would be blocked this summer.
Increasing numbers of visitors is only part of the problem though. And Maitai Bay has been sell-out popular for years, the space available for camping effectively capping numbers. What has changed over time, perhaps, is the attitude displayed by some people. Gone are good old-fashioned common sense and respect.
It's worse at Matapouri, where sheer numbers are having an undeniably detrimental effect on the Mermaid Pools, that in the past have attracted hundreds of people every day. Te Whānau a Rangiwhakaahu hapū placed a rahui over the pools, and the track to them over the Rangitapu headland, earlier this year in a bid to restore their environmental, cultural and spiritual wellbeing, but some visitors remain undeterred. Foreigners, it seems, tend to breach the rahui in ignorance, and are receptive once the issue is explained to them. It is New Zealanders who tend to wilfully breach it, and become abusive.
The view that 'Māori seem to get away with everything' is not unheard of. Hapū members who were on their way to re-erect signs that had been knocked over recently say they encountered 18 people returning from the pools, who were not prepared to listen when the rahui was explained. Now support is being sought from the police and the local authority, options including the issuing of trespass notices. It should not have come to this.
Te Rarawa's fencing of historically significant and environmentally fragile dunes on the Tauroa Peninsula revealed an attitude that Māori land is free for all to use as they wish, but plans for a two-wheeled invasion to emphasise that failed to materialise, suggesting that most people are more rational, and understanding of what the iwi was, and is, trying to achieve, let alone the legal rights that accompany the ownership of land.
Those who are trying to save the Mermaid Pools clearly have some way to go before they see that level of support and understanding, which is a shame. Apart from anything else, one would have to be thick in the extreme not to understand the potential for the pools to lose their appeal because of their popularity. Having ruined one attraction, the hordes will no doubt descend upon another one.
Those who are prepared to clamber over fences and knock down signposts to get to where they want to go haven't cornered the market on stupidity though. In recent days a large scrub fire on the Coromandel Peninsula has been attributed to fireworks, and passengers and crew aboard the Interislander ferry were showered in urine thanks to some idiot who tried to flush a pair of underpants down a toilet.
Māori, and others, who are doing their best to preserve the environment that attracts visitors might console themselves with the thought that lack of intelligence might at least be part of the problem, as opposed to blatant racism. There probably isn't much that anyone can do about the former, but that is not true of the latter.
There will be exceptions, but at Tauroa, Waikato Bay and Matapouri, the issue isn't one of Māori throwing their weight around. It is about people who value their natural environment beyond price, who show it the respect it deserves and ask that others do likewise.
In all three cases the measures taken have been explained, rationally and reasonably, to preserve environments that are (or were) being damaged, or to protect people of all ethnicities from injury or death.
Anyone with a scrap of respect for other people, particularly those who are effectively their hosts, will understand and accept that. In all three locations, growing numbers of holiday-makers are clearly part of the problem, but a little more respect would go a long way towards ensuring that the summer influx remains welcome.