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.

Element - - Eco-Tourism - By Nigel Parry

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 (treesfor­trav­ 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.

New Zealand’s nat­u­ral cap­i­tal is our great­est tourism as­set. Photo: Dean Pur­cell; right: Mo­hua Yel­low­head. Photo: For­est and Bird

Zip­trek Eco­tours, Queen­stown, is blaz­ing a trail for eco-tourism. Photo: sup­plied

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