New Zealand tourism must learn from the mistakes made by Venice, writes Simon Brandon
On a fine summer afternoon they come from all points to see the crystal-clear Blue Spring waters near Tirau. The small carpark is full so the visitors park where they can, on the state highway or up a local road.
Further south at Bulli Point, on the southern cliffs of Lake Taupo, tourists seek out one of the country's best swimming spots — but there's room for just a few cars on this narrow section of State Highway 1 so they park 800m down the road and take the risky roadside walk up to the rocky outcrop.
Most of the free-travelling adventurers will, of course, also have the Tongariro Crossing marked down for a visit. Again they'll find parking and toilets sadly mismatched for the numbers of visitors, with 3000 people on the track each day at summer peak times.
These are just three common stop-offs for tourists in Greater Waikato that are groaning under the weight of a tourism boom and a lack of money to make improvements. Unlike the big private operations in the region such as Hobbiton and the Waitomo Caves, where the numbers can be handled, these attractions on Crown or council land, are struggling to cope.
I recently spent three days in Venice and saw how — unchecked, unregulated and unmanaged — tourism can pretty much ruin a place.
Often attractions are in remote spots, in rural districts with a small, stretched rates base.
But digital and social media means previously little-known attractions like the Blue Spring and its walkway and Bulli Point (voted New Zealand's No. 2 swimming spot via social media) are now on many more itineraries, especially for self-drive internationals. The genie is out of the bottle.
In the year to August we had 3.67 million visitors, compared to 2.4 million a decade ago.
By 2020 visitors are likely to outnumber the locals.
That's good news for the economy but unless we bring in some national planning it's bad news for the environment — ironically the same environment that is our biggest drawcard.
Of course, our problems are small compared to say, Venice, which is sinking figuratively and literally under the weight of about 20 million visitors a year. Yet despite drawing international visitors for about the past 1200 years, there seems no plan, nor even an agreement a plan is needed to manage it. Are we heading the same way as Venice?
Its narrow lanes and waterways are jammed with 50,000 — 60,000 people a day, but more than half won't even stay a night.
In July this year Venetians (there are only 55,000 living there now) held a protest to demonstrate against the tide of tourists. They claim the influx has turned the ancient lagoon city into a huge hotel that is too expensive for ordinary Venetians to live in. There are similar concerns in Spain, which hosted 75.6 million visitors last year, with locals protesting in the July mid-summer heat.
Back to Venice: There's no premium placed on such a special part of the world. No entry charge, no offering to assist with municipal maintenance apart from a small nightly tax at hotels, and no cap on numbers.
Its narrow lanes and waterways are jammed with 50,000-60,000 people a day, but more than half won't even stay a night. The giant cruise ships jockey daily for positions to discharge their cargoes who waddle around, take a few photos, and then head back to the buffet tables onboard.
This overloading detracts from the tourist experience and we risk the same — and about $14.5 billion earned each year from foreign visitors if we don't have adequate infrastructure.
Surely it's up to central Government to provide the planning, leadership and resourcing.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has overtaken the old Ministry of Tourism, but policy and strategy don't seem to have followed along.
All travellers here cop a small border tax for biosecurity stuff. That needs to be beefed up to something like a tourist tax so the Department of Conservation and other Crown agencies get enough money for tracks, huts, carparks and toilets. Or perhaps return the GST-take on international tourism directly to where it's needed in the regions. Cash-strapped district councils should get a slice of the cake to alleviate basic parking and toilet issues in their patch. An international visitor to New Zealand has a budget of thousands, and $100 included in the airline ticket or at the border is unlikely to send them elsewhere anytime soon.
Tangling with the Mafia in Venice
The staggering numbers of visitors to Venice provide rich pickings for organised crime.
And with only one way to get about in the city of canals, it's not surprising the water transport industry has long been a target for Mafia interests.
Whatever you pay for a water taxi, gondolier ride or the very popular and efficient "vaporetto" ferries, it seems a good portion will find its way into mob coffers. There's a nice little earner ferry users need to be wary of — a dodgy ticket scam.
There seem to be a few parties in on the act, and the out-of-order or long, slow queues at the self-service machines help send the unsuspecting to the manned stalls.
Tickets purchased earlier in our stay were fine; it was the ones to the train station on departure day that drew us into the net. On a crowded ferry, with two large bags and 30 seconds before docking to catch our train, a conductor-type appears asking to see tickets.
Mine was fine, my partner's was not. We disputed this and loud discussions took place on the pier and up the steps to the station as we were not interested in paying the 67 euros ($114.20) fine to this rather intimidating man.
A German couple claimed they had just paid 134 euros for the same "scam". Tickets were paid for, validated, then deemed void when scanned by a hand-held device. We asked for the police to be called but time was not on our side. We paid the fine for apparent fare dodging and left.
Here's some tips to avoid this:
• Allow plenty of time to catch your train. We could have got the police involved and dug out our laptop to show the bankcard record of the ticket purchase. It might have helped.
• Heading to the train station pier, sit down the back of the ferry and park your luggage nearby but not with you.
• Don't appear anxious like you are late.
• Ask the ticket sellers to write the date/journey on the ticket. Tickets have no wording or date to indicate what you have.
• Buy tickets online, and get a pass for the full time you are there - it'll cut out the middle men.
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