The 50-year vision for the future of Milford Sound Piopiotahi will begin to firm up after the nationwide survey currently being held.
The survey (being held over July 13-27 here) wants to hear what New Zealanders think about the future of Milford Sound Piopiotahi and its surrounds. It is the latest element of stage two of the three-stage Milford Opportunities Project (MOP). Stage two will culminate in a masterplan to protect the area and enhance the visiting experience.
Milford's struggle with the effects of tourism has been well-documented and, even though Covid-19 has seen a pause in the tourism numbers which created the need for the project, the 50-year field of vision means the window on the future is still very much required.
Visitor numbers have roughly doubled in six years. Milford Sound Piopiotahi is New Zealand's premier visitor attraction, a world class iconic destination with UNESCO World Heritage status. A record 946,000 people visited in 2018. Before Covid-19, tourism growth was forecast to reach 1.2 million by 2023 and 2m by 2035.
MOP's website says: "The current model used to manage recreation along the Milford Road corridor and Milford Sound Piopiotahi is under stress and requires new thinking to safeguard the World Heritage status, conservation values and the visitor experience."
There has been an increase in irresponsible freedom camping, rubbish dumping and what the Department of Conservation calls "toileting issues". The rise in self-drive tourism – heavily promoted overseas for years – means there aren't enough car parks at Milford.
Toilets along Milford Road aren't coping and eight of the nine DOC campsites along the highway needed urgent upgrades.
The 120km highway between Te Anau and Milford Sound Piopiotahi is frequently closed in winter because of avalanche and rock fall risks. The floods in February damaged infrastructure along the Great Walk tracks and Milford Rd.
MOP is headed by the former CEO of Meridian Energy, Dr Keith Turner, who says the survey is important in helping to formulate the master plan for the area: "This survey will pull together ideas and feedback we have received from consultation so far and seek broader public feedback on them.
That will support the creation of a long list of ideas from which the project governance group will develop a short list to form the basis of the master plan, due in May-June next year.
"This is the time for people to tell us what they want for Piopiotahi and its surrounds – it's an amazing place and we need to ensure the masterplan we create will inspire visitors and protect the future of this unique place in the world."
In an interview with Newsroom last year, Turner mentioned some preliminary thinking of his own. He compared Milford Sound Pipiotahi to India's Taj Mahal or the Pyramids in Egypt: "That's completely orchestrated. Your experience is curated from the moment you decide to go there until the moment you leave. We've been a bit ham-fisted about the way we've let tourism just grow, without growing with it."
Some tourists were paying between $200 and $300 for their Milford experience – often a round-trip by bus from Queenstown and a short cruise. Compare that to the $US1500 tourists pay in Rwanda for a gorilla permit, in an example of conservation management. "There's a message in that for us, somewhere," he told Newsroom.
Turner has visions of a string of tourist experiences, with Milford Sound Piopiotahi as the final stop. "As you go up the Eglington and Hollyford Valleys there would be 10 or 12 stops along the way, all of which are world-class experiences for tourists."
He has also spoken of leveraging the attractions of Milford Sound Piopiotahi to open up opportunities in the wider Southland area: "We have stunning assets down in Southland.
Stewart Island Rakiura national park is an amazing place to visit, the Catlins is an extraordinary area in New Zealand. They are perhaps unknown and I think there is a great opportunity to expose Southland to a wider community."
Turner's team, established in 2017, comprises two southern mayors, representatives from three government agencies, Ngāi Tahu and two businesspeople. It has had to "think on its feet" and modify its direction several times with the February flooding and Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown.
"We are very aware of the pressure that businesses and agencies will be feeling as a result of both events earlier this year."
But Turner also says the Milford Opportunities Project must be world class, ambitious and creative and not constrained simply by what can be done within current rules: "Instead it must consider what needs to be done and what the most appropriate outcome will be. The project is about making a substantive change and creative 'outside the box' thinking is needed before it is filtered by practical operational realities."
That, he says, makes it even more important that New Zealanders take part in the survey to help shape New Zealand's most iconic attraction.
Have your say on the future of Milford Sound Piopiotahi: www.milfordopportunities.co.nz