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Skifields encapsulate some of the challenges ahead of Queenstown (Image: Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022September 20, 2022

Peak politics: Queenstown debates a vexed future

skifield with local elecions sign, worl on fire emoji, houses stting there
Skifields encapsulate some of the challenges ahead of Queenstown (Image: Tina Tiller)

Tourism is the lifeblood of Queenstown, and also the greatest strain on its economic and natural resources. Shanti Mathias heads to the resort city to talk to locals and visitors about how the district council can build a sustainable future. 

The view from the skifield is, well, mostly grey. Whorls of snow fall onto the slopes, radiant white with fresh powder. Skiers and snowboarders zip downwards, tired lifties monitor people trucking onto the chairlifts, and a harried instructor is trying to persuade a small child lying face down in the snow to stand up.

Far below, beneath a layer of cloud, is Queenstown, the alpine city that promotional agency Destination Queenstown calls the “home of adventure”. Tonight, mayoral and council candidates will gather at an event at Wakatipu High School, trying to convince residents to vote for them. 

In many ways, Queenstown’s skifields encapsulate the issues facing this area: they’re a key drawcard for tourists, a vital piece of the area’s economy as visitor numbers return to pre-pandemic levels. And those visitor numbers are set to continue rising; at current trajectories, a peak day in 2031 will have nearly double the number of a peak day in 2022, with more than 100,000 visitors outnumbering 61,000 residents. To visitors and locals alike, this doesn’t seem sustainable – especially when tourism is a high-carbon activity that might become less attractive as temperatures rise.

The tourism industry is a source of income that lines Queenstown’s CBD with high-end retail stores and provides jobs to thousands of locals. But tourism is a double-edged sword; those same visitors must currently navigate the CBD through a maze of cones as the council upgrades the roads, and visitors and short-term workers fill housing, making the town an eye-wateringly expensive place to rent or buy.  

lots of skiiers and snowboarders clusterd in foreground with mountain and lifts in background
Queenstown’s Remarkables skifield is a key draw for visitors (Image: Shanti Mathias)

“I work in hospitality, and it’s so understaffed,” says Winnie, a snowboarder I meet at The Remarkables. Winnie is here on a working holiday visa, working shifts between days on the mountain.

“It’s been a rough season,” agrees April, who is working at the cafe’s till after injuring her wrist snowboarding. She’s just here for the season. “We work long hours and it’s minimum wage. It took me ages to find accommodation.” While she can’t vote in the election, she has a suggestion for the council – there are empty backpacker hostels in town that could be turned into worker accommodation. 

The skifields are also relatively empty on a weekday afternoon; a worker tells me that there are only a thousand people here. Despite the projected growth, a poll conducted by mayoral candidate Olivia Wensley found that most Queenstown residents don’t want to return to the visitor numbers seen before the pandemic. “We have this extractive type of tourism – people take and don’t give back,” says Darren Rewi, chair of Mana Tahuna, an organisation created to support Queentown’s Māori community through Covid. 

Esther Whitehead, a councillor elected in a byelection last year, says that the tourism industry puts “all our eggs in one basket”. The council has a role to play in facilitating economic diversification for Queenstown, she says. 

An economy dependent on tourism presents more than financial risk; the hordes driving up to The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, or Treble Cone to enjoy the snow are also placing pressure on the region’s water infrastructure, roads and housing – a cost borne by ratepayers. Councillors appreciate that this is a tricky issue. “It’s about finding the right balance between tourism and community and making sure that [the council] prioritises the community above tourism, and not the other way around,” says Quentin Smith, a Wanaka councillor seeking reelection. 

blue lake mountains and some buildings on the other side of the water
The suburb of Kelvin Heights viewed from Queenstown (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Some argue for a visitor levy or bed tax, an option approved by residents in a 2019 non-binding referendum. The idea was put on hold during Covid but has been resurrected by council this year, included as an option in tourist plans and discussed with central government. All four main candidates running for mayor back such a policy. “A visitor levy [would] enable extra funding to support infrastructure in our district,” says Smith. 

But for the levy to truly support Queenstown’s most vulnerable, it can’t just be spent on infrastructure and businesses. “The social services in this town run on volunteers,” Rewi says. People are sleeping rough or crowding into inadequate housing while tourists take chairlifts up the mountain and stay in holiday houses that could be used by locals. “A portion of that [levy] should go into social services and small tourist enterprises, because the big operators will always be fine.”

Housing affordability is a “grave concern”, agrees Whitehead, who would like to scale the council’s work with Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust if reelected this term, making more social housing available. She suggests that some of this work could be funded by differentiated rates for homeowners – for example, the owners of holiday homes could pay more in rates to account for visitors’ costs to the region. 

In his role working with Māori in Queenstown, as well as his involvement with the council’s Welcoming Communities programme for migrants to the area, Rewi has seen how critical housing is for vulnerable groups. He’s worked with whānau who take in boarders, usually short-term low-income workers, to pay for rent or a mortgage. Inequity is perpetuated through the cost of housing, he says; for instance, much of Queenstown’s cheaper housing is around Queenstown Hill, an area with a high fire risk

four people sitting in a row, white woman, white man in suit, brown woman in heels and blazer, bald white man in jeans.
Queenstown mayoral candidates Olivia Wensley, Glyn Lewers, Neeta Shetty, and Jon Mitchell all say that high tourist volumes are unsustainable in the long term. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Beneath these concerns about the pressure of tourists on workers and housing lurks the ever-present spectre of climate change. Every day, planes soar between the mountains and land on the tarmac, disgorging visitors who have come here to see glaciers and lakes or hurtle down snow-covered slopes. The carbon emissions generated by the global tourism that Queenstown depends on place the entire business model at risk; there’s no tourism on a burning planet. “We need to budget at council level for a very different future, one which has us facing more regular droughts and floods,” says Whitehead, adding that all council and business activities need to be undertaken with the inevitability of longer summers and warmer winters in mind. 

The Queenstown Lakes Climate and Biodiversity Action Plan, adopted in June, takes some of these risks into account. It says that the district is likely to warm by as much as seven degrees in some places and that mountain snowpack will reduce significantly, impacting not just snow sports but water security. It’s intended to work in tandem with a Destination Management plan to help reduce the environmental impact of the tourism industry. 

queenstown lakes district council sign in sunshine
Queenstown Lakes District Council has a role in preparing the district for increased temperatures (Image: Shanti Mathias)

I ask Glen Sowry, CEO of Queenstown Airport – in which QLDC is a majority shareholder – what role the airport can play in reducing climate risk in the region. He says that the airport’s sustainability strategy encourages airlines to use more fuel-efficient aircraft, provides electric vehicle chargers, removes single use cups, and aims to make airport operations net-zero by 2040.

But none of these attempts to decarbonise the operations of the airport can get around the fact that aviation is responsible for 17.5% of emissions in the district; road travel, which brings in a far greater number of visitors, is responsible for 20%.

Climate change could also diminish the attractions that draw tourists in the first place. “I’m worried that it won’t be possible to ski in New Zealand in 10 or 20 years,” says Dan, a part time ski instructor and private driver who has moved to Queenstown from Christchurch. “The council should have a plan for what to do on bad snow years – if Queenstown had a year like Ruapehu, a lot of the businesses would struggle.”

“We’re getting more floods up here and [tourist] operations are having to change,” says Rewi, who is also convinced that QLDC needs to focus on increasing resilience for the inevitability of climate change, not just decarbonising. 

Back at the skifield, the clouds are clearing, and the sun is emerging, albeit somewhat insipidly. The tingly cold air and gently swinging chairlifts feel at a remove, in a different world to the reality of election hoardings lining roadwork-filled streets around the lake below. But decisions made by successful QLDC candidates will determine what a visit to these slopes looks like in the decades to come.

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