Residents wait for tourism “reset” as ministers turn back the clock on environmental rules
Christopher Luxon's coalition heads for repeat of 2019 fiasco
Milford Sound Piopiotahi has a residential population of less than 200. With one hotel and no phone service it is an untouched isolated region known for its beauty.
Though increasingly, it’s known for the one million tourists that flock there every year. Of course, these tourists fuel local small businesses, but the swathes of social media snappers have turned the once peaceful spot into a hubbub of tourist activity.
The indigenous Māori population that regard the fjords at Piopiotahi as a cradle of spirituality were bombarded by tourists in 2019. Record numbers overran communities and conservationists, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment pleaded “Enough is enough”.
Their call was answered during COVID when Stuart Nash, former tourism minister, declared in 2020 that the virus was “an opportunity to reset tourism” as New Zealand was plunged into a strict two year lockdown.
The lockdown suffocated tourism and by the time then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern declared the country was “open for business” in March 2022, New Zealand’s tourism industry had been crippled.
To combat this, Nash introduced a $200 million strategy to level up infrastructure on both a local and nationwide wide scale, bringing relief to small, isolated south island communities whose usual holiday traffic was halted by the lockdown.
The idea was to restart tourism from scratch, lowering the number of visitors to put less of a strain on the environment.
Small businesses and Māori businesses have benefited most from this funding. Yet, an estimated four million tourists are expected to arrive this year, smashing the previous record set in 2019.
So, has anything changed to “reset” and prevent the old, destructive tourism we saw in 2019?
Looking at Queenstown: the beating heart of tourism in the south island, it’s difficult to see much of a difference.
Queenstown is known as “the adventure capital of the world” but perhaps it’s 29,000 residents would prefer the small town to have a lower profile. In survey carried out in May 2023, 62% of Queenstown residents thought there was “too much tourism” in their community.
From January to October there are 80,643 more tourists this year than the same period in 2019.
With New Zealand’s peak season fast approaching, it seems residents concerns are being swept under the carpet and we could be heading for a repeat of the situation in Milford Sound Piopiotahi unless ministers can step in.
Presently, this seems less likely than ever.
Last week, Christopher Luxon was sworn in as New Zealand’s new prime minister. The new right wing coalition government’s first course of action: to scrap the world first smoking ban which initially sparked headlines worldwide.
The ban, introduced under Labour in 2011 would have stopped anyone born after 2008 from ever buying cigarettes in the country, eventually leading to a total ban on tobacco for the entire population.
The legislation followed a broader scheme to protect the environment, reducing waste and preserving the country’s world renown natural beauty.
The reversal of the legislation was insisted upon by coalition partners Act and New Zealand First. Christopher Luxon highlighted that the reversal would prevent a hidden tobacco market from emerging. The new finance minister, Nicola Willis, said cigarette sales would fund the new coalition’s tax cuts generating around $1 billion in revenue.
But public health officials aren’t convinced, they say the reversal could cost up to 5,000 lives a year with Māori communities being especially vulnerable due to higher smoking rates.
Overall, the reversal is a huge win for the tobacco industry at a cost to, especially Māori, lives.
It’s no surprise that former businessman and multimillionaire, Christopher Luxon, is relying on his business savvy to curb New Zealand’s slumping economy and rampant inflation.
Luxon is the former CEO of Air New Zealand but left the company in June 2019 to pursue a career in politics. With a short 3 year stint in politics, people are left wondering whether the incumbent prime minister follows the previous government’s aim to “reset tourism”.
So far, he’s falling back on bad habits, increasing tourism in “critically underfunded” conservation areas, as a means to provide them with monetary support.
A hallmark of the old tourism model, boosting tourism in these protected areas leads to a public outcry, as seen in Queenstown and Milford Sound, as sacred places are polluted whilst ministers look on.
It’s far from the previous government’s proposal to increase the International Visitor Levy (IVL) which currently sits at $35. A charge foreign tourists (excluding Aussies) must pay at the border upon arrival.
The national environmental cost of tourism at the moment, even with the levy, is mostly subsidised by taxpayers who end up footing the bill for the tourists that don’t respect New Zealand’s landscape.
On a national level things look bleak. Regionally, however, changes and developments are underway with the Milford Opportunities Project (MOP), which introduces a $50- $150 charge upon entry to Milford Sound. There will be a new electric park-and-ride-bus to reduce rushes and spread tourists throughout the day and a cruise ship ban to protect the native dolphin population.
The project, however, has been in it’s testing phase for 7 years, and even with substantial government funding, as shown above, implementation is yet to be seen. MOP will publish its findings in a report on 30 June 2024. Until then residents are sceptical as to whether talk will turn into action.
James Higham, former Otago University tourism professor, agrees that something needs to be done. He says people are becoming increasingly cynical about the possibility of transforming tourism and there needs to be a concentrated effort to redirect the industry, whilst we still can.