Thursday, 17 May 2018

NEW ZEALAND: Overflowing And Overcrowding With Tourists, But Challenged By Shortage Of Facilities

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis says the last thing we want is for international tourists to leave New Zealand with a bad experience.

Speaking in reference to the pressure that the growing number of tourists is bringing to New Zealand and the mess caused by a lack of facilities, he is right.

But overflowing rubbish bins and dirty public toilets may not be what ruins the holiday.

There have been many reports of tourists overwhelming small towns with their waste.

Davis knows that Kiwis are starting to view international visitors not only as contributor to the economy and a source of national pride, but as a creator of pollution and congestion.

A survey released at the start of the year showed 40 per cent of respondents were concerned about the impact of international tourists.

The risk for the tourism industry, now arguably the largest in the New Zealand economy, is real.

If the population turns against visitors in a significant way it will be the lack of welcome which ruins the New Zealand experience.

The growing concern is no surprise. There have been many reports of tourists overwhelming small towns with their waste.

With some conspicuous examples aside, this is usually because the country is ill prepared, not because the tourists are irresponsible.

If we cannot cope now, the situation will not simply correct itself.

Visitor numbers are currently running at around 3.8 million a year, the best part of a million more than three years ago.

In just five years, if government forecasts are right, another million a year will be coming.

Towns once regarded as backwaters are experiencing visitor booms and more will in the future, so long as the goose which lays the golden egg is protected.

To do this, it is clear that New Zealand needs a marked increase in the level of funding for facilities. But who will pay? Or rather, how will they pay?

Davis has confirmed a visitor levy is coming, but ideas about how it will work need to be socialised with the industry.

The Tourism Industry of Aotearoa has fretted at the prospect of a visitor levy charged at the border, saying the situation may be unworkable.

A levy at the border may though, be the least bad option available.

Some commentators have mooted a bed tax, but this creates issues of fairness.

Much of the negative impact of tourism is showing up in areas where there is a high proportion of freedom camping, which would not be covered by a levy on hotels.

Why should an Australian couple on a short but expensive weekend in Wellington pay for the impact of a lack of toilets in Twizel?

A levy could be added on rental vehicles, but this too would miss some of the impact.

Trying to capture every individual sector would create a system of levies likely to be difficult and costly to administer.

Visitor levies are not without problems. Establishing who should not pay is critical because this should not simply be a tax on international travel.

But it is the tourism industry which stands to lose if the problems which are emerging are not sorted. If it has a better idea on how to solve the problem, speak up now or live with what Davis comes up with.

While the alternative accommodation made for a unique cultural experience for the visitors, it illustrates how New Zealand's tourism boom is stretching infrastructure to the breaking point.

With 3.5 million short-term arrivals last year - 480,000 more than had been projected only two years earlier - a lack of capacity may end up harming the nation's biggest foreign exchange earner.

Scenic walks across volcanic plateaus and through snow-capped alpine valleys are becoming congested, while small towns servicing adventure activities like jet-boat rides down surging rivers or guided walks across 7000-year-old glaciers are finding their sewerage systems over-loaded.

If we don't fix these things and look to the long term, we'll be putting a cap on our own growth, said Quinton Hall, chief executive officer of Ngai Tahu Tourism, one of the country's biggest adventure tourism operators.

We've got a natural cap on our peak period right now because we just don't have the accommodation in New Zealand. Even if they wanted to come, they couldn't find anywhere to sleep.

Tourist numbers jumped 12 per cent in 2016 and are forecast to reach 4.5 million by 2022, almost matching the current population of 4.7 million.

Government research last year identified a likely shortage of more than 4500 hotel rooms by 2025, after taking into account existing construction plans for about 5200 new rooms.

Hotel occupancy in Auckland averages 94 per cent in February and about 86 per cent over the year, with the nation's largest city frequently full.

If immediate solutions aren't found, it is unlikely we will continue to grow at current levels, said Dean Humphries, national director of hotels at Colliers International.

If we are going to continue to see more tourists come into the country, where do they go?

In the regions, the influx is causing different problems, with infrastructure like car parks and toilets straining under the load.

At the 19.4-kilometre Tongariro Alpine Crossing thousands of tourists are overwhelming facilities designed to be used by a few hundred people a day.

In Glenorchy where Ngai Tahu offers jet-boating, canoeing and horseback trail rides, the company is forced to bring in chemical toilets during peak season because the small town's waste-water facilities are insufficient.

There's a similar issue at Franz Josef where untreated sewerage was pumped into a nearby river after a surge in tourist numbers.

The overloading is fuelling concern that a bad tourist experience will harm New Zealand's clean-green image and dent an industry that earned $14.5 billion from foreign visitors last year, a fifth of all export receipts.

Funding the infrastructure that's required is now sparking debate.

Many of New Zealand's natural attractions are remote, and the nearest towns don't generate enough local taxes to pay for the car parks and rest stops visitors need.

Regional councils recently estimated $1.4 billion needs to be spent on tourism infrastructure to keep pace with demand. The government, which disputed that figure, has allocated $17.5 million.

The association representing tourism operators wants more, noting that foreign tourists contribute $1.15 billion annually to the government's coffers in sales taxes alone.

Christopher Luxon, Air New Zealand's chief executive officer, said last year he supported a national bed tax and a border levy on visitors to help fund tourism investment.

There are also growing calls for visitors to pay to enter national parks, as they do most days at the Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks in the US

We provide all sorts of things free of entry, but not free of costs, said David Simmons, professor of tourism at Lincoln University in Christchurch.

We need an informed discussion about user pays.

Solving the accommodation shortage will be in the hands of private investors such as Auckland International Airport and Tainui Group Holdings.

They are building a 250-room five-star hotel near the international terminal under Accor SA's Pullman brand, due to open in late 2019.

Until then, Jenny Nuku can expect more calls for emergency lodgings at Te Puea Marae, whose entire hall can be rented for $500 a day.

That's less than $10 per person for the 53 American tourists who bedded down there last month and got the added bonus of an authentic encounter with Maori culture.

They said they'd travelled around New Zealand, and this was the first real cultural experience they'd had, Nuku said with a chuckle.

They had their phones and iPads out, taking selfies. We were just happy to be of assistance.

Waves of tourists are overcrowding New Zealand's national parks, not just in summer.

For the de facto mayor of Mt Cook, there is no respite.

Visitors to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park have increased 25 per cent from last year. Half a million would soon visit the park annually, during times that were once quiet.

Crowding is one of the challenges facing New Zealand's national parks, which have more visitors than ever before, at all times of the year.

Davies runs the small Mt Cook village.

During peak season, accommodation bookings in the village reached 90 to 100 per cent. Most visitors brought cars and left waste.

Tourism New Zealand has been really effective at marketing New Zealand and getting people here. The next phase is managing them when they're here, he said.

Trying to manage vehicles is going to be our biggest challenge. They've marketed that you hop in a vehicle and visit these places, gone are the days when a whole lot of people hopped on a bus.

At least half of all international tourists visit a national park while in New Zealand.

At Tongariro National Park in the central North Island, visitor numbers have reached breaking point. Tourists bring about $20 million a year to the region, but crowding has started to devalue the experience.

The number of visitors walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing has risen from 20,000 in 1992 to 109,000 last year – a 450 per cent increase.

It's my belief that the numbers can't keep growing like this. Either the numbers and/or the experience will crash somehow, Tongariro-based Department of Conservation scientist Dr Harry Keys said.

The alpine crossing has capacity for 600 people a day. Beyond that, the experience suffered, research showed.

Last year, 55 per cent of days had more than 600 visitors on the crossing. On three days, there were more than 2000.

Crowding was now a major complaint, and was referenced in 40 per cent of online visitor reviews on the crossing, Keys said.

More visitors brought more risks, which added costs to the free rescue service run in the park.

A group of tourists had to be rescued after walking barefoot to Mt Ngauruhoe, in an homage to its role as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Last year, rangers rescued their first baby from the crossing, Keys said.

I believe this overcrowding of the Tongariro alpine trail needs some kind of solution.

It's a multi-faceted solution, not a single solution, whatever it is.

Last year we hosted 3.7 million international visits, a 7 per cent increase on 2016. At the same time, average spending per person per visit was down by 4 per cent.

A tourist says, "a friend of mine from Europe ordered a one-shot Johnny Walker Red Label whisky in a Picton cafe. I ordered a coffee".

"I wish I had ordered something stronger to counter my shock when my friend emerged from paying the bill to say his whisky had cost $25"

"Now, it's just possible that a mistake had been with the bill, he assured me the coffee was not included but it did bring home how expensive New Zealand has become and not just if you're reckless enough to order spirits in a bar."

Over the following two weeks of travelling around the country, including tourism hotspots such as Queenstown, you will be taken aback by not just the prices but by the lapses in service and facilities that often accompanied them.

I travel overseas for up to six months every year taking tours in all corners of the world, and almost every year over the past few years I've been on a New Zealand road trip with overseas guests.

I am pro-tourism, understand how important it is to our economy and how many people depend on it to earn a living.

However, this last tour around the country has convinced me that it's time to further discuss where our tourism industry is heading.

The obvious overcrowding of places such as Mt Cook and Queenstown is one concern – we do not seem to be coping well with increasing tourist numbers and if action is not taken soon, we could kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

In fact, in some places that goose is already looking sick.

Last year New Zealand received 3.7 million international visits, a 7 per cent increase on 2016. At the same time, average spending per person per visit was down by 4 per cent.

I know it's dangerous to make the link but after paying for overpriced food and drink around the South Island I can't help wondering if the decreased spending is visitors voting with their wallet.

Although I'm dead against tourists eating in our soup kitchens I can now almost see why they might.

I've travelled to plenty of places overseas that I wouldn't hesitate to call a tourist trap but I rather naively thought that in New Zealand we were somehow better than that and were giving our visitors value for money.

Now I'm not sure that's the case.

A meal out in a seafood restaurant in Queenstown: Bistro style, no ambience to speak off, booth seating; three glasses of wine, two entrees (one scallop, one chowder), two mains (one mussels, one pasta with cockles) one shared dessert. Total bill $185 for two?

A truly awful frozen pizza in a cafe in a national park that cost nearly $30 where the manager holding the liquor licence was away from the premises over a peak time, so no-one who wanted a wine or a beer was able to purchase one.

If you are going to charge $250 a night for a cottage, albeit one in a stunning location, then there are some essentials you need to provide.

Bedside lamps, guests should not have to resort to wearing a headtorch so that they can read in bed or not be blinded by an overhead light.

Wine glasses lacking? New Zealand should be proud of its wine serving them in plastic glasses is not the way to show this.

Nowhere to hang towels. This was the case in almost every holiday home or Airbnb property some tourists used. It's not such a problem if you're staying only one night but it is if you are staying longer.

If you have jumped on the Airbnb bandwagon then you need also to provide some basic hospitality if you're on site when your guests arrive.

Staying seated in your lounge playing on your laptop when you meet your guests for the first time is not how it's done.

A friend from Europe decided not to buy a local sim card because he was sure that New Zealand would have lots of free wi-fi available. He was embarrassed to discover that in many places we don't.

Popular cafes/restaurants in Picton, Wanaka and Queenstown and places en route either had none, or had systems so complicated that it was time to leave before one had worked out how to log on.

And if you are charging premium rates for your accommodation then providing internet access is an essential.

I know it was Chinese New Year and in peak holiday season but I was deeply disturbed by the scenes I saw at the Hooker Valley carpark in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.

There were so many vehicles trying to park in what already seems the size of a supermarket carpark strewn with rubbish that vehicles were parked along both sides of the road for several hundred metres along the access road.

Mt John Observatory now costs $8 per car to drive up to the lookout and cafe. The fee is to pay for road maintenance but not apparently to provide a large enough carpark at the top.

Cars and camper vans are parked on crazy angles beside the narrow road, including on bends on the road. What worries even more is that the increase in foot traffic on the slopes around the cafe has made vegetation there almost non-existent and the hillside becoming bare.

I love this place and was so proud of the entrepreneurial locals who started it, so I found this all very sad.

So, what are we doing to our country and our reputation? I am 100 per cent behind a tourist tax to help with essential improvements to our infrastructure but now I've also been made very aware that we need to be offering our visitors value for money and not develop a reputation as a rip-off destination.

What about following the model of high value, lower impact, lower volume tourism used by the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan?

And high value does not mean high costs we need to be giving people good value for the dollars they are spending and I'm not sure we are uniformly doing that.

Do we want to get to a point like some destinations that are already limiting visitor numbers or who are seriously considering doing so?

Do we want people leaving our shores, as my friend did, having thoroughly enjoyed his visit and the Kiwis he met but who remarked that that he never thought he'd find New Zealand more expensive than most European destinations.

There were, of course, shining examples of fantastic hospitality and wonderful guest facilities among the less than special.

So, here's a bouquet to the bed and breakfasts in which my guest stayed in Nelson and Timaru.

He loved both places and not just because they were exceptionally comfortable but because the hosts understand the concept of hospitality.

We need to treat our tourists like guests, but equally make sure they treat our beautiful country with respect.

Other countries set guidelines for visitors, New Zealand shouldn't be afraid to do so too, give them value for money and not give into the temptation to see them as walking cash machines.

Tourism Observer
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