Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industy for New Zealand - and appetite from overseas travellers is increasing at an increasing rate, leaving some Kiwis to question whether we have the infrastructure to cope with the influx of guests. Next week about 300 international travel sellers will arrive here for the annual TRENZ 2017 conference; networking with hundreds of operators from with the New Zealand tourism industry. Ahead of the conference the New Zealand Herald visited some of our most-loved tourist hot-spots to find out what pressures locals and hosts were under, and how tourists viewed our offerings, as part of our The Great Tourism Squeeze series. Today: Waitomo

Deep beneath the rolling, verdant hills of Waitomo exists a secret world.

An ancient labyrinth of limestone caves lit up by glowworms that have captivated millions of visitors for more than a century.

The glowworm caves have placed the small Waikato village on the world map and on any given day tourists outnumber locals.


"The locals occupy one table at a pub and all the rest of the tables are occupied by tourists," said John Ash, who has lived in Waitomo since 1974.

"If you're a young guy it's quite good as a lot of the tourists are really quite pretty."

But, he added, some locals are feeling "a little crowded out."

Only 9600 people live in the Waitomo district, but last year more than half a million tourists descended on the village to navigate their way through the caves, float through Glowworm Grotto or try their hand at black water rafting.

The tourism experience in Waitomo was world-class, Ash said, but the small village was struggling to withstand New Zealand's unprecedented tourism growth.

Waitomo was lacking in accommodation, didn't have a supermarket, was short on car parking and needed to upgrade its sewerage and water systems, he said.

Earlier this month a Bloomberg article headlined 'Too many people are going to New Zealand. And that's a problem', discussed how the country's tourism boom was stretching infrastructure to breaking point.

Waitomo, which lies on the west coast of the North Island, has been a major tourist destination since as early as 1889.


The first tourists used to arrive by horse and cart and explored the caves by candlelight.

Now tourists flock to the village by the busload and wander through the caves with the help of a discrete network of path lighting.

During peak season, up to 3000 tourists could pass through the caves every day, making them the most visited in the Southern Hemisphere.

New Zealand is rapidly becoming a hot-spot for global tourists, with our tourism industry's rich history dating back to the early 20th century

The number of annual visitors to Waitomo Glowworm Caves has increased by about 100,000 in the past decade, said Jo Allison, chief operating officer at Tourism Holdings, which manages the caves alongside the local iwi and the Department of Conservation.

"We've been doing lots of work with the district council and transport authorities and in our own organisation to handle what we see coming in the future," she said.

It recently doubled the size of the gift shop, added an additional 40 car parks and shifted the tourist lunch location off-site to ease pressure.

One of the biggest issues Waitomo faced with increasing visitor numbers was rising levels of carbon dioxide in the caves, which could damage the ancient limestone formations, Allison said.

"Keeping the carbon dioxide down is our biggest challenge. We monitor this every day and we will close the cave if we feel like we are going to exceed those limits."

Waitomo local June Davis says the ratepayers of town are lumped with paying for infrastructure under pressure from growing tourism numbers. Photo / Mike Scott
Waitomo local June Davis says the ratepayers of town are lumped with paying for infrastructure under pressure from growing tourism numbers. Photo / Mike Scott

In the past few summers the caves have had to shut a number of times because of excessive carbon dioxide levels and Tourism Holdings is contemplating extending the opening hours to try and spread the number of tourists out in a day.

"I think the biggest issue facing Waitomo Glowworm Caves as visitor numbers increase is delivering the ongoing customer experience and managing the natural environment we exist in," Allison said.

In addition to the fears that growing visitor numbers could damage the caves, locals are worried the much-needed upgrades to the region's sewerage and water systems could hit their back pockets.

Local June Davis said another concern for the community was the number of tourists flooding into the village via the one entry road.

"We see a lot of tourists that come in and don't know how to drive or drive on the wrong side of the road. We see it all the time," she said.

John Anderson, part owner of the General Store, has lived in the area since 2003 and said life in Waitomo was usually "peaceful and serene."

"We have tourists come here from all over the world to stay with us who think it's one of the best places in the world," he said. Anderson also runs a bed and breakfast in the village and said one man from Switzerland spends his holidays in Waitomo every year.

The biggest negative of the tourism boom was Waitomo hitting that "tipping point" where the crowds start to diminish the tourist experience and the community, Anderson said.

Fellow local John Ash agreed.

The upward march of tourists into Waitomo might mean local businesses were thriving, but there was the potential danger of "rape and pillage" where these businesses start "just feeding people in because you make more money," he said.

This could threaten individual tourist experiences and, in turn, harm New Zealand's billion dollar tourism industry.

Ash recalls going to a conference in the 1980s where industry leaders were glorifying the economic effects of tourism growth for New Zealand.

He said he had always remembered how a woman stood up during the conference and said: "I've been listening for the past hour and you're inviting people to a party but you haven't got the tables and the cutlery ready yet."

It appeared her foresight was playing out now; 30 years later, Ash said.