Recreation and tourism to the max: How much love can Aotearoa handle?

Dr Chris North, Deputy Head of UC’s School of Health Sciences, has worked in outdoor education and leadership for 17 years for secondary and tertiary institutions, international outdoor leadership organisations and outdoor clubs, and is a founder of Leave No Trace. He discusses the impact of New Zealand’s tourism boom.

Chris North, winner of the Environment Leadership Award, 29.10.10

Chris North, winner of the Environment Leadership Award, 29.10.10

An ongoing good news story in New Zealand is the success of our tourism industry – more international visitors than Kiwis are predicted for the near future.  This means more work for New Zealanders, and not just in the main centres.

The downside of this boom is the growth in negative impacts. Regular headlines have been detailing the ways in which New Zealanders are experiencing the downsides.  Most of these impacts are revolting, disturbing and rude, culturally inappropriate or just plain dangerous.

The tourism boom feels like we invited a few friends over for dinner on Saturday night but somehow the invitation went viral on social media.  Next minute, the street is packed with people who are burning the letterbox, scaring the pets and throwing rocks at police – when all we really wanted was a quiet dinner.

Back when we were hosts, we used to talk about international travellers as guests.  Nowadays we talk about customers and businesses.  Customers pay their money and get a service.  This relationship is very different to guests and hosts and seems to define our approach to tourism in New Zealand.  From a business perspective, the problems associated with growing tourist numbers can be solved by building more toilets and dispersing tourists to diverse destinations.  These are important in addressing rapidly increasing tourist numbers, but this response keeps the relationship very much as customers and business; we supply the infrastructure and experiences that our customers expect.  That is certainly one way to understand tourism but it doesn’t place the same importance on the responsibilities of international tourists.

I think reclaiming the concept of guests and hosts would be very helpful.  Guests and hosts have a reciprocal relationship; hosts look after guests and guests work hard to show their appreciation and fit in with the expectations of the hosts.  Using this idea, guests take some responsibility for learning about the local culture, environment and expectations.  New Zealanders would work hard at being great hosts – and I don’t just mean those in the tourism industry.  We would then need to think about how we can promote New Zealand as a destination for responsible travellers who want to learn about the places they are visiting and be good guests.

What are we doing collectively to help promote responsible behaviour to our guests?  In a partnership between Ngati Rangi, Leave No Trace and tourist concessionaires at Ruapehu, we looked at this challenge and came up with some strategies that we are trialling at the moment.  How can we educate international travellers so that our cultural and scenic landscapes are protected and enhanced, our roads safer and our guests’ experiences richer? We can’t keep adding people to New Zealand without thinking pretty hard about how we are going to cope – and it’s more than just building more toilets.

Dr Chris North presented a case study on the experience of tourists and New Zealanders in Tongariro to the Outdoors Forum in Wellington, in September.

 

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