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(Image: Tina Tiller)
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PoliticsFebruary 18, 2021

Simon Upton wants NZ to totally overhaul tourism

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

A major new parliamentary commissioner for the environment report has just dropped, with recommendations about how tourism should be reshaped. Alex Braae spoke to Simon Upton about what he’s proposing.

Last time parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton did some domestic tourism, he went to Raglan. He ate in a local restaurant, and attempted to climb Mt Karioi with his son. He parked the car near some bushes. 

“I just had a look around, under the mānuka and kānuka on the side of the hill, and sure enough there was loo paper, tampons, god knows what. It wasn’t recent, I think it was going a long way back, but you know? It really opened my eyes to the issue.” 

It’s a potent symbol of where tourism in New Zealand was going before Covid-19 closed the borders. Beautiful scenery, which covered up a sordid layer of increasing environmental damage. 

Upton has just released a new report about the environmental impacts of the industry, titled “Not 100% – but four steps closer to sustainable tourism”. It offers four concrete proposals for how the industry has to change – or even be changed from both above and below – ahead of the expected return of international tourism when the borders reopen. 

The title is a wink towards the slogan that sold the country to the world for years – “100% Pure New Zealand”. It was also an example of how an industry that attracted some of the brightest minds in marketing often prioritised telling the right story over all else. In the end, the slogan famously came back to bite the government, when former PM John Key was hit by questions about it in a widely watched BBC interview. 

“My job is to put the environmental facts on the table,” says Upton. “There’s no question New Zealand has done a brilliant marketing job. If you compare it to the farming industry, it doesn’t for its livelihood depend on creative talent. And this [tourism] is an industry that is a natural magnet for the creative sector.” 

But he believes the industry has to a degree been taken in by its own hype. “You start within the vocabulary and toolkit of that marketing world and language. So it’s a question of OK, we have a problem. How do we change the story? And I’m saying hold it this isn’t a marketing issue. I really object to the ‘let’s reimagine tourism’, because we’re not talking about imagination here.” 

“They’re very clear that there’s a cold hard economic reality under this, and I completely accept that, and say there’s a cold hard environmental reality. So why don’t we treat the two in exactly the same way?” 

Right now, the economic reality for international tourism is absolutely stuffed. The borders have been closed for close to a year, operators up and down the country are on the verge of bankruptcy, and in some areas – like the West Coast glaciers – whole towns are looking at risk of dying. 

Franz Josef during a better season in 2018 (Photo: Conan Young/Radio NZ)

But for all the economic benefits, mass tourism also caused serious environmental and social damage. Upton says the time is now to reset the industry. It follows a PCE report released in 2019, which warned that continued growth in numbers would put at risk everything that made New Zealand an attractive destination. 

To start addressing this, he has made four proposals, after wide consultation with industry groups, government departments and local authorities. The first is for a departure tax on all international flights out of New Zealand, to apply to everyone who flies. The aim of this is to reflect the emissions necessary to connect a distant country with the world. 

The money raised by this would be ring-fenced into two areas: supporting research into lower-emissions aviation fuel, and provide funding for Pacific nations that are at severe risk of climate change. Upton sees this as being something New Zealand would do both in the national interest, and to build a coalition of nations willing to work on the problem. He described it as his “most enthusiastic” proposal, because it’s a “clear break from the past” and wouldn’t discriminate depending on who is doing the flying.  

“For a country that is so dependent on tourism for a significant chunk of wealth, the survival of aviation is probably more important than many others. We are one of the furthest destinations, so to get here you pollute more by definition, so it’s a real risk to resilience in the long run. 

“All we can do is partner with other countries, but we know there are other countries in this position. So we need to put together a coalition on this, I think, in much the same way as New Zealand has put together a coalition on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions,” says Upton. 

Would this increase the risk that tourists would simply give New Zealand a miss altogether? “On the numbers we calculated, I don’t think it would be make or break for only the rich to come,” said Upton. He cites similar rates used by the United Kingdom, which if applied to New Zealand would add $25 to a trip to Australia, and $125 for a trip to England. “I don’t think those numbers are really going to make a difference to who can afford to travel.

“But in a more subtle way, the question as to whether people want to come here but are worried about it, maybe at the margins you would want to choose destinations that you felt environmental issues which worried you were also shared by your destination.” 

A freedom camper (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

He also sees a place for introducing much stricter social and environmental conditions on government funding to support tourism. These would require developing tourism that is genuinely in keeping with the wishes of local residents and mana whenua, as well as any infrastructure that was funded meeting high environmental standards. Many communities expressed concern pre-Covid about the damage “over-tourism” was doing to the social and environmental fabric of their patch. 

There’s an example in his report that gets to the heart of this thinking. Several years ago, Ngāi Tūhoe rejected funding to tar-seal part of State Highway 38 through Te Urewera ranges, “because it did not appropriately consider negative effects from increased visitor numbers”. But isn’t this all contingent on who specifically local decision makers are at any given time? 

“There is that risk, but the government’s point of leverage is that it’s going to spend money. To date, the government has not really tried to constrain demand, it has simply poured money into hardening up infrastructure to accommodate that demand.” 

The third proposal revolves around protecting “wildness and natural quiet” in conservation areas. When it comes down to it, this means limiting the sorts of activities that can be done, and finding mechanisms for capping visitor numbers at any given time. The archetype example is the introduction of car-parking restrictions in the Tongariro National Park, to avoid the chaos created by too many people trying to do the famous Crossing walk on the same day. 

The final proposal is about stricter rules on self-contained freedom camping vehicles, and improving oversight of the certification process. Upton admits that the environmental footprint of freedom campers might not be as large as other forms of tourism, but says it is important to consider the social licence too. 

Toilet paper litters the beach at St Mary’s Bay in Auckland (Photos: Joel Thomas/The Spinoff).

“There’s no question that it’s something that is very evident at a local level,” says Upton. “It’s probably the most common thing that I heard about, in the time I was moving around New Zealand talking to people about this. You hear one set of issues in Wellington, but you go out into provincial New Zealand where tourism and campervans have started to become significant, you hear about the problem.

“So I’m not saying that it’s the most important environmental issue. Of the three or four issues in this report it probably has one of the smaller environmental footprints. But New Zealanders feeling that the industry has to take the environment seriously – and in our backyard as well, please – this is a big deal. So I really thought I couldn’t leave it out, because so many people talked to us about it.” 

There has been some qualified criticism of Upton’s report on the grounds of what hasn’t been covered. In a comment provided through the Science Media Centre, AUT professor Michael Lueck said “to me, the big disappointment is a missing recommendation regarding the cruise ship industry. Time and again research has shown that this type of tourism causes a plethora of social and environmental problems, and there is an urgent need to reduce vessel size and the number of visits to ports in Aotearoa New Zealand.” 

Victoria University associate professor Christian Schott agreed with Upton that the time was right to redesign tourism. But Schott said “it also feels like a missed opportunity not to go further by being more aspirational and by introducing the concept of regenerative tourism into this important and future-defining debate”.

On these criticisms, Upton said “we were quite clear that there’s nothing comprehensive about these suggestions. I decided to choose four things that could make a difference, at different scales. So I make no apologies for not covering probably ten different issues.” 

Regardless, the report has dropped at a time when the government has been making noises about whether tourism should look exactly like it used to when borders reopen. New minister Stuart Nash recently outlined thinking around focusing on wealthier tourists, making New Zealand a more “aspirational” destination, and focusing more on sustainability.

On this report, Nash said it added to the growing “chorus of analysis” that it was no longer tenable to prioritise volume over value.

“It is too early to respond in detail to the PCE recommendations, which require in-depth consideration by a number of government agencies. But the report is a timely challenge to many assumptions which underpin our tourism industry,” says Nash.

“The concept of ‘Brand New Zealand’, or the 100% Pure image, requires constant maintenance. We cannot allow it to be damaged in our key international markets. I have already identified the need to honour the promise of ‘Brand NZ’ as one of my priorities.”

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