Whanganui River Māori are looking at building a waterfront eco-tourism hub to connect visitors and locals alike with the river and its people.
Led by the Whanganui Māori Regional Tourism Organisation (WMRTO) and supported by the Whanganui District Council's economic development agency Whanganui and Partners, the initiative has reached the third phase of development following scoping and feasibility investigations.
WMRTO chair Hayden Potaka says a business case is now being developed to set out plans for the governance, partnerships, funding and sustainability of a riverside eco-tourism hub.
The initiative is still at "a fairly early stage" but could include virtual experiences, cultural and food tourism, and paddling a waka downstream from the river's middle reaches to the city, he said.
Potential sites have been identified and discussions are being held with hapū, iwi, marae and key stakeholders, such as the Whanganui Regional Museum, to help flesh out the concept for a unique and interactive river experience.
"The vision is for something that is able to speak to our visitors – to knowing the identity of our area, that we are here as tangata whenua and always have been, and that the awa is a central part of who we are and what we believe in," Potaka said.
Potaka runs tourism venture Unique Whanganui Experience, which provides multiple-day canoe tours on the Whanganui River guided by iwi navigators.
"The ecology of the awa and the land around it is important to us as Māori – that is where the eco-tourism concept began," Potaka said.
"Tourism does not have to be a bad thing environmentally. Eco-tourism is the ability to lessen your footprint on the environment as you're enjoying the pleasures of the landscape. If the footprint is too heavy within the sector, we need to look at some of the mechanisms we can use to lighten it. If there's too much pressure in our industry or on our awa, we've got to respect that.
"The conversations we are sharing are about what eco-tourism is and promoting, from an operator perspective and a hapū and whānau perspective, what our tourism offerings are."
The eco-tourism hub experience itself and what it might look like are still being explored.
"It has the makings of a cultural centre, it might be a virtual hub, it might offer physical visitor experiences," Potaka said.
"It might go as far as having a look at local cuisine – kai and food tourism – or offer waka experiences on the river, whether that's in the city or whether it's coming down from Parikino or Pungarehu ... there is the ability to do all that within this project."
Potential sites, most of them riverfront, have been identified but Potaka said the initiative is a long way from formal discussions to secure a location.
WMRTO secretary Soraya Peke-Mason says the organisation is about to go out more widely to share the concept and develop potential partnerships with stakeholders, whānau and communities who live alongside the river.
"We want to create something that is by Māori, with Māori and for Māori but also the wider community, something that upholds our values as Māori from Te Awa Tupua," Peke-Mason said.
"It can be like a kaitiaki itself, a place that holds, preserves and protects our stories on the awa for our people and for the next generation. It's not just for visitors to Whanganui, it's also for our wider hapū, marae, iwi as well – a multi-purpose place, a resource that they can call their own."
The WMRTO was established in 2003 under the mandate of five iwi: Tūpoho, Tamaūpoko, Hinengākau, Ngāti Rangi and Tamahaki.