The eco tourism opportunity
Ever-more people yearn for what New Zealand offers – wide-open space and a healthy ecosystem – but only if we maintain it.
Ever fancied rolling your sleeves up and spending your break in the great Kiwi outdoors, making New Zealand a little cleaner and greener?
Jo Priestley from Forest & Bird recently accompanied a group from the Department of Conservation, moving 80 mohua (yellowhead) from Chalky Island to their new predator-free home on nearby Coal Island.
“The scenery is breathtaking, the island has an interesting history of gold-mining and, best of all, you may get to see South Island kaka, mohua, Fiordland crested penguins and New Zealand falcon,” says Jo. “Volunteering in such rugged and inaccessible terrain is a dinner story it’s unlikely your tramping buddies will be able to match.”
Such extreme eco-volunteering is not to everyone’s taste, yet it is just one flavour of the increasingly popular travel with a sustainability twist; ecotourism.
An energy hungry business
Managing the environmental impact brought by tourism growth pressures is an issue we face in New Zealand, although the country is far from ‘full’, says David Simmons, Professor of Tourism at Lincoln University. “We need to manage environmental hot spots. At the site level it’s remarkably concentrated.”
Tourism meccas like Tane Mahuta and our thermal springs get specific mention by Simmons, who is an authority on the sector and its impact, and co-author to the annual state of the industry reports on tourism. “Our tourism trades fundamentally on public goods; uncrowded, friendly, access to conservation estate, access to waterways.
We have to look into the future as well, at what it’s like in a carbon-constrained economy.”
“New Zealand is chosen inherently as an eco destination partly because of our outdoor landscapes,” says Kevin Bowler, CEO of Tourism New Zealand. “It has that aura about it.”
Carbon footprint is one issue. The most recent research, admittedly some years old, discovered that for international visitors around 70% of their energy use already happens by the time they step off the plane.
Even when international tourists are in Aotearoa, boosting our economy by $11.8b per year, two thirds of their remaining energy use is just travelling around. “So, in total, 91% of the energy footprint is in just receiving and distributing tourists,” adds Simmons.
And while there have been efficiency gains in the last decade, he expects the proportions to be roughly the same now. When you look at the more individual level carbon footprint can be larger still; free independent travellers indulging in far-flung experiences can use 2.5 times the energy of the average tourist.
Yet while he is critical of the government’s lack of positive action on carbon reduction and climate change, he sees growing interest in ecotourism. It has seen kiwi operators stepping up and improving their eco offerings and it is increasingly possible for a tourism experience to tread more lightly on our environment.
“There are examples of the principles that ecotourism started off being brought back into mainstream practice,” says Simmons. Action is also being taken; Bowler praises Air New Zealand’s partnership with the Department of Conservation and their environmental initiatives.
“It might be better to think of ecotourism as a process than a product; look to reducing footprint and continuous improvement.” Yet ecotourism goes far wider than carbon footprint as Simmons adds sustainability and engagement with local people, or gaining an understanding of our natural landscape. “It’s about a great visitor experience.
“It is more about social responsibility, including responsibility for environment but also people and cultures,” says Bowler. “What people are looking for is almost that 360-degree experience, including social responsibility.”
“It is the small, experiential tourism that more discerning tourists are looking for,” adds Janet Mackay from TRC Tourism, a group of consultants focussing on sustainability. “To meet a Maori person, talk about day-to-day life, it’s much more about connecting with the people.”
This ties in well with the strong New Zealand focus on the visitor experience. It is an area where professional training and qualifications are supporting Kiwi and
“Slowly and inexorably what New Zealand has becomes more valuable every day.”
international tourism. Lincoln University, for example, has student papers that address nature and heritage interpretation, and the challenge of how places came to be how they are, as well as more general tourism planning and management.
It serves to equip New Zealand to compete in an increasingly international marketplace, for ecotourism and destination travel in general.
Yet for the traveller it can be confusing. Search Google for ‘ecotourism’ and you get an avalanche of responses, even from New Zealand sites.
The market is becoming ever more discerning. Just putting ‘eco’ in front of an attraction is not enough and visitors are looking for authenticity, preferably one-to-one, or intimate groups, that delivers the big experience.
“There are both formal and informal ways of discerning what is eco. It is no different to an organic apple; do you trust the grower or trust someone else to have verified?” asks Simmons.
Measuring up to the eco standard
The standard benchmark in New Zealand is Qualmark, originally set up by Tourism New Zealand and the AA. Their Enviromark label comes in three flavours; gold, silver and bronze, and each provide what Simmons refers to as a ‘mild green tick’.
“By international standards we have a high level of penetration,” Bowler comments on the take-up of Enviromark by the industry. The organisation is not resting on its laurels and is re-evaluating the standard that an environmental certification represents. Tourism New Zealand is looking to partner with an international body for a more globally recognised standard, he added.
Worldwide, there are tougher green standards that are making headway, such as Earthcheck. For over a decade the Kaikoura Community has passed its tests and is now platinum certified. In fact, Kaikoura was the first local authority globally to be certified for its sustainability initiatives.
“They were supported by a great number of businesses measuring to manage, including reuse, recycling and waste management,” says Simmons. “Tourism management is seen as a real partnership between government and business, and we really do work hard on that partnership.”
Another plus for the Kaikoura-bound is the Trees for Travellers (treesfortravellers.co.nz) scheme. Through its website, travellers can offset their carbon footprint while travelling to and around New Zealand by purchasing native trees. These are planted in specially set-aside reserves around Kaikoura and they even have a handy online carbon footprint calculator that shows how many trees needed to offset a trip.
Simmons has strong praise for the work of the Department of Conservation (DoC). With so many parts of our attractive landscape under their care, they push local operators leasing their land to maintaining conservation efforts as well as requiring environmental assessments.
Stoats are the number one killers of kiwi, eating their eggs and chicks. Wairaurahiri Jets, which has a concession from DoC to run jet boat tours on the Wairaurahiri River in the Fiordland National Park, run a successful stoat trapping project alongside their tourism experience.
There are other places where our tourism pays the environment back. Visit the sooty shearwaters on the west coast and some of your tourism money goes to predator protection. As a result chick numbers go up.
Appreciating the unique kiwi experience
We don’t always appreciate what we have on our doorstep. “30% of protected land is pretty good,” says Simmons. “Tourism’s interface with conservation in New Zealand is seen as world-leading, as is its engagement with indigenous peoples. We’re at the cutting edge.”
As life becomes busier around the world, the open spaces and authentic experiences we have to offer mean tourists will keep coming, and we Kiwis will carry on enjoying our own backyard. “I have travelled the world,” says David Simmons. “I see increasingly polluted, congested and consumed places. Slowly and inexorably what New Zealand has becomes more valuable every day.”
Put that way, ecotourism will become more important too.