The days of allowing tourist hordes to some of New Zealand’s best-known natural attractions are over, the government has signalled, as it unveiled new plans to protect the environment and reconsider the role of tourism in its economy.
The tourism minister, Stuart Nash, outlined on Tuesday plans to “reset” tourism for a post-Covid world – planning for fewer international visitors and attempting to diversify the economies of tourism-dependent towns.
Some of the country’s best-known natural attractions, such as Unesco world heritage site Milford Sound-Piopiotahi, will be transformed to take far fewer visitors. The dramatic slopes, still waters, and frolicking fur seals of Milford Sound-Piopiotahi have attracted millions of visitors.
But the site “cannot return to its pre-Covid state”, Nash said. Previously, it had been under “significant pressure” from 870,000 annual visitors – a deluge of people that Nash said undermined the infrastructure and cultural and environmental values of the place.
Tourism is a major part of New Zealand’s economy. According to Tourism Industry Aotearoa, it is the country’s biggest export industry, making up about 20% of total exports. Tourism spend makes up a large chunk of the country’s overall economy, accounting for more than 5% of GDP, and directly or indirectly employing 13.6% of the national workforce.
Before the trans-Tasman bubble allowed for quarantine-free travel with Australia in March, New Zealand had been shut to all international tourists for the better part of a year. During that time, Nash has repeatedly said the government would attempt to transform the country’s tourism offering – focusing on attracting a smaller number of “high-value” visitors and trying to ease the environmental and social burden that crowds of international tourists placed on small towns.
“The reality is that we have a responsibility to take an intergenerational view of the role of tourism in New Zealand, Nash said in March. “It can’t go back to how it was.”
“Unsustainable tourism levels put far too much undue pressure on communities and our natural attractions and many communities have struggled to absorb.”
Nash outlined more concrete plans for the government’s new vision, including a $200m package, more than half of which will go to struggling South Island towns hit hard by the border closure. As well as supporting some businesses to reopen when visitors return, large chunks of the funding would be devoted to helping businesses and communities to break their dependency on international tourists. Twenty million dollarswould go to the popular Queenstown Wanaka region, “to help develop alternative industries”. Another $15m would go to the “transformation [which] is needed to protect Milford Sound-Piopiotahi”.
“The economic impact of the loss of international visitors is felt beyond the tourism workforce and businesses,” Nash said on Thursday. “Whole communities, especially in five South Island regions, are facing new challenges to their way of life.”
To ease the environmental damage inflicted by tourism, the parliamentary commissioner for the environment, Simon Upton, has recommended a departure tax for all international flights. The money raised – an anticipated $400m annually – would go to researching lower-emissions aviation, and mitigating the effects of the climate crisis across the Pacific.