New Zealand is grappling with a rapidly rising number of tourists, but we haven’t reached the crest of the wave yet. DOC expects the number of national park visitors to double in the next six years, when the number of international visitors is expected to hit nearly five million. George Driver looks into how the department will cope

A young couple walk along an isolated track through golden tussock, steep bluffs drop away to a deep blue lake and forested mountains capped with snow. There is no one else around. They come across a cascading waterfall; a helicopter drops them onto Franz Josef Glacier, they drink from the Blue Pools in Haast Pass, kayak around Split Apple Rock in Tasman Bay. Not another soul is in sight.

Images like these, part of of Tourism New Zealand’s latest video in the 100% Pure marketing campaign, are catching the eye of an ever growing market, bolstering a booming trade in tourists. The conservation estate is at the forefront of this sales pitch – selling ideals of an untouched green safe-haven at the bottom of the world. But in an industry already suffering from growing pains, how will the department that manages this land – a third of the country – cope with the rapid growth predicted?

The latest figures show another record breaking year – international visitors topped 3.67 million in the year to August, up 311,500, or nine per cent. International tourism has passed dairy to become New Zealand’s biggest export earner, contributing $14.5 billion to the economy. Growth is predicted to stay strong, at 4.8 per cent a year, with overseas visitors predicted to reach 4.9 million by 2023. This is on the back of low fuel prices, a rising middle class in places like China, and more international flights.

Add in net migration, also at record-breaking levels (72,100 arrived in the past year) and an increasing proportion of both locals and visitors heading to national parks, and the pressure building on the conservation estate is immense.

If funding for DOC had kept in step with this growth it would still be a massive challenge, but DOC’s budget has increased at a third of that rate. Over the past decade, its budget rose by 15.5 per cent, or an average of 1.45 per cent a year (from $310 million to $358 million), while the number of overseas tourists increased by 48 per cent (from 2.4 million to 3.6 million at 4 per cent a year). By contrast, Tourism NZ’s marketing budget increased by 70 per cent over that period, going from $69 million in 2006/7 to $117 million in 2016/17, nearly a third of DOC’s budget.

DOC did get a budget boost earlier this year – an extra $76 million to spend over the next four years tagged for ‘visitor infrastructure’. This includes $23 million for maintaining huts, tracks and other facilities. The rest is directed to offering more experiences for tourists to spread the load – $21.8 million towards developing and promoting two new Great Walks and a network of Great Short Walks and Great Day Walks and $19.8m to ‘improve visitor experiences in regions’. A further $11.4 million is to upgrade DOC’s online booking system, and on vague-sounding initiatives like ‘marketing and better understanding visitors’.

A growing chorus has been saying this is not enough. In September, seven organisations, including Fish and Game, Forest and Bird, and the Environmental Defence Society issued a joint plea for the Government to boost DOC’s funding, as well as tackle challenges around water quality and climate change.

The tourism industry is also concerned DOC will be unable to both manage the tourism growth, and major conservation challenges. Tourism Industry Association (TIA) chief executive Chris Roberts says DOC manages New Zealand’s top tourist attraction and it needs to be a priority for the Government.

DOC director general Lou Sanson says spreading tourists around the regions will make managing a surge in visitors easier. Photo: George Driver

“Our conservation estate is a critical part of our growth strategy and DOC needs to be funded better,” Roberts says. “We are disappointed they didn’t get more funding for their baseline this year. The Government can choose to fund DOC properly. International tourism is delivering a massive tax bonus –  the GST take from overseas visitors has gone up by $500 million a year – but very little of that has found its way back to relieving the pressure that growth has caused.”

Federated Mountain Clubs president Peter Wilson says $76 million is “the bottom of the barrel” and DOC needs another $50 million for tourism infrastructure.

“The trouble is we didn’t get ready for the last surge of growth and we are in catchup mode,” Wilson says.

DOC’s Four Year Plan, released in May, appears to confirm these concerns. The report, written in October 2016, before the recent funding boost, said the department was expecting debt to rise to $116 million in the next 10 years – $82 million of the shortfall was due to a lack of funding, while $34 million of debt was due to the pressure of population and tourism growth.

To deal with this deficit, DOC planned to cut 110 staff by 2021 (from 1864 staff members to 1754). It also planned to reduce monitoring of native species.

To cope with tourism growth, in the short term DOC had been looking at investing more on tourism and recreation related issues and infrastructure, and less on conservation. To reduce the shortfall it planned to take a more commercial approach, including nearly doubling income from concessions, from $17 million to $31 million by 2026/27, and increasing fees for campgrounds and huts.

But DOC director general Lou Sanson says its fortunes have since turned around and the cuts will not go ahead. On top of the recent funding boost, revenue from concessions has increased dramatically.

“The department is in a healthy state,” Sanson says. “A year ago we were facing problems. But we’ve turned our debt forecast around.”

He says increasing the income from the tourism sector is how the department can cope with the predicted growth. Concession revenue is already up by $2.9m in the past year, due to increasing fees and cracking down on fee-dodging and illegal operators, and charging more for facilities and concessions. He says this demonstrates DOC’s more commercial approach.

“We’ve had a culture that we love people to come and enjoy the place, but we don’t ask you to pay for it. But we want everybody to pay their fair share.

“The revenue from camping grounds alone is up $1m just in the past year.”

Philanthropy and commercial partnerships have also helped, contributing $13.4m in the past year.

Sanson says tourism is one of the biggest challenges facing DOC, but it’s an issue facing park management around the world. The New York Times recently reported the national parks in the US hit a record 331 million park visits last year, putting a major strain on infrastructure and park facilities.

Sanson is adamant that spreading tourists to more spots around the country would make managing growth achievable.

“The critical factor is not how many people visit annually, but when and where they visit.”

DOC plans to have more rangers on the ground, and spread the load of tourists to less used tracks around the regions – including building new Great Walks and promoting the new Great Short and Day Walks.

But could the coming wave of tourists impact on the sense of quiet and isolation Kiwi trampers so value? Sanson doesn’t think so.

“I think we have to accept that there are more people travelling, it’s got cheaper and more people are visiting. But I know I can go to the Greenstone-Caples or Hopkins and have the whole valley to myself. The trick is to be very professional in areas with a lot of tourists, but to keep other valleys to ourselves – we’ve got to respect that in how we market New Zealand. We are not trying to push people everywhere.”

Peter Wilson also doesn’t expect the backcountry to be impacted by the tourism boom.

“Most trampers know where to go to avoid tourists,” he says. “There are the hotspots and then there are the places where locals go. It’s not as if the backcountry is at risk of being overcrowded.”

On the ground, while trampers say there are still plenty of areas which are less travelled, they are concerned at how long that will last.

Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club president Richard Forbes says the club heads to more isolated places, and it avoids the hotspots over the summer months.

“There are still special spots that are off the tourist beat,” Forbes says.

DOC is focussing on increasing revenue from concessionaires, such as guided kayak companies. Photo: David Cregan

But he says more tourists may limit the kind of tramps the club can do.

“We may have to rethink our tramping trips and head away in smaller groups. With those sorts of numbers [predicted], the Rees-Dart, Greenstone-Caples and Matukituki Valley will be at capacity.”

But he is concerned the rising Great Walk fees – from October 2018 it will cost up to $140 a night for international visitors to walk these tracks – could send more people into the backcountry.

Fiordland Tramping and Outdoor Recreation Club president Viv Shaw says popular tracks like the Key Summit day walk on the Routeburn Track, Lake Marian and Gertrude Saddle are markedly busier.

“I start to worry we are being pushed out of our own backyard,” Shaw says. “We know that if you don’t get somewhere early in the day, you’re not going to get a car park.”

She says there are still some trails ‘off the beaten path’, but she is worried they will also attract more visitors.

“Other members of the tramping club feel it is just too busy. The question is, where do we go?

“This isn’t the Kiwi experience, being crowded. Fortunately, we can still find that isolation, but I think it’ll become more difficult.”

The debate mirrors that of other environmental issues – water quality, mining, fisheries. It is the inherent conflict of economic growth, versus preserving and conserving the natural environment. As the tourism industry grows, and the impacts and economic value increases, finding a balance will become a crucial and vocal debate. At least all sides appear to understand the importance of getting the setting right.

In the meantime, those 100% Pure advertising campaigns may need to add a few crowds to the pristine sights in future if they want to accurately portray the great New Zealand outdoors.

A growing tension

The Tourism Industry Association (TIA) and Tourism NZ conduct a joint biannual survey canvassing the public’s attitude towards the tourism industry. The surveys show a creeping discontent – 21 per cent believe New Zealand attracts too many tourists, up from 11 per cent in December 2015, while the number that believes we attract too few has declined from a high of 37 per cent in March last year, to 25 per cent in March this year.

The top reasons people gave for saying there were too many visitors was a lack of infrastructure, overcrowding, and impact on prices for domestic tourists.

There has also been a marked growth in the perception that tourists put too much pressure on New Zealand, growing from 18 per cent in December 2015, to 35 per cent in March this year.

Interestingly, the growing numbers of tourists isn’t impacting on visitor satisfaction levels, which remain very high.

“Visitors are happy with the numbers at those locations,” TIA chief executive Chris Roberts says. “They don’t perceive it as being overcrowded. We are more concerned with the New Zealand public’s perception. ”

This article was originally published in the November 2017 edition of Wilderness magazine.