Outdoors people are engaged in a guessing game over the identity of the next new Great Walks.
In June the Conservation Department released a shortlist of seven multi-day walks that remain in the running to become a Great Walk. Originally the public identified 30 possibilities — 20 in the North Island.
The current nine Great Walks are increasingly popular and, to meet growing demand, Budget 2017 provided $12.7 million to expand the Great Walk network. This project is part of DoC's work to ease visitor pressure at some high-use sites, focusing on protecting our natural heritage and ensuring Kiwis continue to enjoy their great outdoors.
DoC thinking has evolved since the process began last year when they were looking at two new Great Walks. Depending on options, we may see two new walks or a decision to invest in only one, if it is an outstanding option that requires significant new tracks and building upgrades.
The initial rankings issued by a consultant showed the Humpridge Track in Fiordland scoring highest against DoC's criteria, with Rees-Dart Circuit near Queenstown and Aotea Track on Great Barrier Island placing second and third respectively.
When the 30 submissions were assessed by a panel, the Humpridge and the Aotea Track were among seven tracks to go through to the next stage. The Rees-Dart missed out.
The five other walks under consideration are: Te Paki Coastal Walk, Northland; Timber Trail, Waikato; Tarawera Trail, Bay of Plenty; Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough; and Waiau-Toa/Molesworth.
Key considerations for any new walk include opportunities to engage with Maori culture; accessibility for New Zealanders; and cost and environmental impacts to bring the track and facilities up to the Great Walks standard. Options will vary in relation to the level of cost required. Community support is also a vital component.
Announcements will be made by the end of 2018 and it's expected that any new Great Walk will be ready for the beginning of the 2021 summer season. Which walk or walks will get the nod is hard to say but it is significant that four in the North Island are in the running. Given that six of the current nine Great Walks (plus one in the construction stage) are in the south, it's a no-brainer that they will be looking for balance.
I feel they will opt for two North Island walks, which will meet the need for high-profile walking opportunities closer to Auckland and also take pressure off tourist hot spots in the south. And there certainly is pressure there.
Three examples are Franz Josef Glacier, Milford Sound and the Mt Cook area. Franz Josef Glacier experienced a 9 per cent growth in numbers this year to 750,000; Milford Sound continued its trend of about 9 per cent growth annually over the last five years, with 810,000 visitors in the year ending March; visitors to the Hooker Track increased by 35 per cent and numbers to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park are estimated to be around 945,000 in the year ending March — a 17.5 per cent growth from 2016/17.
Big numbers, but DoC says an estimated 3.9 million or 80 per cent of Kiwis visit public conservation land and water at least once a year. In addition, a record 1.75 million or 52 per cent of all international tourists visited a national park in the year ending March, up 5 per cent.
With international visitor numbers predicted to increase by a further million over the next six years, DoC faces huge challenges of capacity, protection of natural and cultural values, and quality of experience in some high-use sites.
Dave Scoullar is a tramper, conservationist and member of the Te Araroa Whanganui Trust