Can New Zealand's tourism industry make a sustainable return?

By Shaimaa Khalil
BBC News, Queenstown, New Zealand

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image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA jet boat on the Shotover River

New Zealand is hopeful that a recently opened travel bubble with Australia will rekindle its pandemic-battered tourism industry. However, many are also seeing an opportunity to rethink how to make the sector more climate friendly.

New Zealand's Queenstown - a popular tourist spot - is throbbing with activity.

"To see and hear all the boats and the screaming and the complete joy… it puts a smile on all of our faces," said Jolanda Cave, the general manager at Shotover Jet - one of the most established adventure firms there.

It's a busy time for the company, named after the river where for more than half a century, boats have been whizzing, spinning and splashing to the delight of tourists.

But even so, the numbers it is seeing are a fraction of what it was used to before the pandemic closed the country's borders. It used to operate eight boat rides an hour. Sometimes, that was down to just one.

"It's been real eye opener for us to go from 1,200 (visitors) a day to 200 a day," Ms Cave said.

image copyrightGooseandellen.com
image captionTourism was a big industry for New Zealand before Covid hit

Like many tourism operators across New Zealand Ms Cave is excited about the recently opened travel bubble with Australia, its biggest market.

"It's given people hope. Australians represent a huge part of our business. (The bubble) will mean that we will see some growth. I think a lot of Queenstown will," she says.

In 2019, international tourism was worth $12.6bn (£9bn) in total, with Australians contributing $1.94bn.

Between 1.18 and 1.5 million Australians came to New Zealand annually, accounting for 40% of the country's overseas visitors.

Those numbers dropped to zero when New Zealand closed its borders.

'We do need to do things differently'

So far, most Australian visitors have come to reunite with loved ones they haven't seen for a year.

It will be a while before the full economic benefit of Australians returning is felt, but the industry is optimistic.

"The bookings are very strong," said Ms Cave. "We're definitely seeing that they're going to come and experience our activities."

But along with the excitement is an awareness that the industry has so far grown at significant environmental cost.

New Zealand has sold itself to visitors on its natural wonders - glaciers, lakes and mountains.

But before the shutdown, experts were warning that so many people congregating in remote areas - often thousands at a time - had been actually risking this pristine environment.

There are now calls to use the tourism "hiatus" - forced on the industry by the pandemic - as a chance to curb its impact.

Proposals presented to the government include limiting visitor numbers at tourism sites and a departure tax to help counterbalance climate impact.

"I think with climate change, people are realising that they have to change what they do. We do need to do things differently and that it will be costly," said Simon Upton, New Zealand's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who made the recommendations.

"Asking travellers to contribute a small amount as they leave our shores is the most constructive thing we could do," he said.

But it's a difficult proposition for an industry that has already suffered so much.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThere are calls for New Zealand to curb tourism's heavy carbon footprint

"It does feel a little bit like the dog is already down and we're having somebody step on our throat", said Shaun Kelly, the general manager of Absoloot Hostel in Queenstown - where bookings have been down 80%.

"Everybody needs to look at themselves environmentally because this is the product that we purvey.

"But in regards to the carbon impact of tourism when you do compare it to the other major industries in the country, which are categorically larger carbon producers, is tourism really the appropriate thing to be looking at right now?" he asked.

But Mr Upton says there's never a right moment to make a change.

"There's a short-term crisis to be managed, but long term, we need an industry which is more sustainable, more respectful of the environment, and doing what it can to limit the damage," he said.

Electric jet boats

Jet boat companies like Shotover know that the very thing that makes their adventures thrilling is also a source of pollution: noisy boats with polluting fuel.

Ms Cave said they have plans to make their business environmentally viable.

"We are looking at electric jet pilot projects. That is going to go ahead and that will dramatically shift, what we do and the way we do it," she said.

image copyrightSimon Atkinson
image captionDavid Gatward-Ferguson is open to more sustainable practices.

David Gatward-Ferguson is managing director of Nomad Safaris, whose off-road tours explore everything from historical gold mining areas to spectacular mountain scenery and Lord of the Rings filming locations. He supports being more sustainable, but says clearer guidelines about what is expected from tourism operators are key.

He's also open to tourists paying more, as long as the income is used properly.

"There's plenty of money that's been raised by our international visitors because they're paying 15% (sales tax). None of that money is really going back to look after the lands that people are coming (from) around the world to visit," he said.

Sustinability and survival

New Zealand is seen as a success story for how it handled Covid-19.

And in the centre of Queenstown, life feels pretty normal. People are milling around the Saturday local market, with hardly a mask in sight.

But despite its reliance on tourism, the country remains reluctant to open up beyond the travel bubble with Australia.

media captionThis grandmother has a first hug with her grandchild

The hope is that when more visitors do return, the country will have found a way to protect the natural wonders that millions have come to enjoy.

Mr Gatward-Ferguson says sustainability is a matter of survival.

"Without this environment, without this beauty around here, we'll be out of business."

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