National Parks - what are the trends and what are the options for management?

National Parks - what are the trends and what are the options for management?

I have recently been thinking a lot about the growth in NZ tourism and its effects on our national parks and protected areas. I was recently asked to talk to a meeting of the Southland and Otago Conservation Boards on this issue, and summarise some of my main points below.

At times, I feel that National Park tourism is treated as the poor cousin of New Zealand tourism and that many people believe that that’s all that national parks exist for. The recent Sustainable Summits Conference ( at Aoraki/Mount Cook was an opportunity to hear speakers from around the world talk about the effects of tourism in protected areas. For me, there were four big takeouts from the conference:

  1. The mountains are changing – speakers gave many examples of how landscapes are collapsing, whether they be on Mt Blanc, Mt Everest (in the Ice fall and on the Hillary Step (it’s gone)) or here locally on Aoraki/Mount Cook, the Dart River rock fall and subsequent floods and the access onto Mt Aspiring’s NW ridge. Our glaciers are retreating. These landscape changes will impact on the access by climbers and visitors into the mountains.
  2. The environmental impacts from people’s behaviour in our mountains are increasing. In addition to those enthusiastically wanting to summit mountains, the gateways to our mountains are increasingly popular. This is a key issue – the connection between tourism towns/villages – the highways/roads to the carparks and the need for carparks, toilets, huts, campgrounds, information guides etc. It is interesting to reflect that 60 years ago we had 110,000 visitors to NZ–a lower number that went over the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the last year! The increased numbers obviously place pressure on how we manage human waste, water quality and noise to name a few impacts. Many of the international visitors at the Sustainable Summits Conference expressed surprise at how widespread use of helicopters for recreation in the New Zealand Alps is. The European, North American and Asian delegates shared with us how tight the regulations on aircraft access into their mountain national parks are. The value of natural quiet in considering the management of noise was another important point raised.
  3. The third key take out from the conference was the increasing recognition of indigenous people’s values of their mountains. The importance of the sacredness of mountains in Alaska, Nepal and the Southern Alps is receiving greater recognition. A concern that was raised was the potential to exclude parts of our society from visiting national parks because of possible costs or any user pay fees.
  4. The final point was the growth of mass tourism. We are seeing international markets being discerning about what they want to see and do. New Zealand is well recognized for its innovative approaches to product development – jet boating, bungy jumping, whale watching and more recently mountain bike tourism. I do think it is worthwhile being cautious about encouraging more and more similar activities in our parks. There is the real danger of permitting too many gondolas, transport operators or building too many mountain bike Great Rides - we have not given enough thought into the future management, marketing and maintenance of the thousands of kilometres of new mountain bike tracks built in the last decade.

We are fortunate that we can learn lessons from overseas national parks who have had to use management approaches in their national parks that we thought we would never need in New Zealand. We have already recognized the need to accept and embrace limits in places like the Milford Track accommodation, Antarctica, the Subantarctic Islands. When I look at the pressure on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Milford Sound, I see no alternative to applying limits, whether they be car parking permits or closing road access to ensure that the experiences of the visitors to our national parks are as expected by the visitor. Managing air access into our national parks needs a greater collaborative approach between stakeholders and the national parks and conservation lands.

I believe that DOC is seriously underfunded in the area of managing the burgeoning tourism sector that visits some of our conservation estate. I believe that without adequate funding for policy development, research and management including frontline ranger staff, the quality of visitor experiences in our national parks is in jeopardy. The GST take from international tourism currently exceeds 1 billion. More of this should go back to DOC. A departure tax for visitors should continue to be assessed. There is the potential for differential user charges for New Zealanders and internationals when user pays applies for example and a dual charging system in places like the Milford Track accommodation.

I believe that conservation and tourism can, and must, be good partners for the future well-being of our national parks. We need to remember our national parks are here forever. They are preserved in perpetuity. We, the tourism industry, have a huge responsibility to contribute and support the national parks. Our tourism numbers, both international and domestic will continue to grow. These special places need strong brave management. If we don’t they will no longer be special.

Photo: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing on a busy day from South Crater heading to Red Crater

Posted: Friday 4 November 2016

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