Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

Environmental impacts of tourism – Expert Reaction

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) Simon Upton warns that increasing numbers of tourists are eroding the very attributes that make New Zealand such an attractive country to visit.

The Commissioner has released a report on the environmental consequences of projected tourism growth in New Zealand. He says tourism is often seen as an environmentally benign form of economic development, but it does place a number of strains on the environment, including:

  • visitor density and loss of natural quiet;
  • water quality degradation;
  • solid waste generation and management;
  • infrastructure development and landscape modification;
  • biodiversity loss and biosecurity risk;
  • greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite a longstanding emphasis on sustainability, the Commissioner says the existing policy mix is unlikely to prevent a worsening of tourism’s environmental burden.

While the report summarises concerns about the environmental impacts of tourism, it does not make any policy recommendations – these will come in a second report next year.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the PCE’s report. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Professor Regina Scheyvens, Professor of Development Studies, Massey University, comments: 

“To date New Zealand has been relatively immune to the strident protests about ‘overtourism’ that have hit major European cities like Barcelona and Venice in recent years.

“This timely, considered and comprehensive PCE report signals that we can no longer be complacent. A business-as-usual approach to growing our tourism sector will have devastating consequences for the natural environment which is the major drawcard for our tourists.

“The report, quite rightly, notes that in contrast to the ‘win-win-win’ rhetoric promulgated by the sector (i.e. that we can grow tourism numbers, and provide quality jobs, and protect the environment), trade-offs will need to be made – however trading on the integrity and wellbeing of our natural environment should not be an option.

“A useful approach is taken by organisations like Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) which seeks to make Auckland a great place to live, a great place to work, and a great place to visit.

“We need to see tourism in this holistic, integrated way in terms of how it aligns with broader national goals. We need to consider how tourism can protect the environment while enhancing the wellbeing of New Zealanders, both those working in the industry and those living in the places that tourists like to visit.

“Current government policies of geographical and seasonal dispersal of visitors are a useful step in the right direction. In weighing up priorities, the wellbeing of our environmentally-blessed but economically challenged regions, including Northland and Westland, should be prioritised. Using the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy to invest in these places, and the people living there, is critical.

“While the report quite rightly notes that domestic tourists have a big impact too, our carbon footprint is typically far smaller because we are not taking long-haul flights. In addition, we tend to travel to more places that are off the tourism map, and support locally-owned businesses such as motels and camping grounds, providing enduring economic multiplier effects. A campaign to encourage more tourism ‘at home’ (like the iconic 1980s advertisement ‘Don’t leave town ‘til you’ve seen the country’), could mean fewer emissions from overseas flights by New Zealanders as well.

“Regarding the question of how to protect our natural assets, especially iconic sites and walks, in future, it is likely that quotas will be needed. For example, charging $20 per adult during the peak season and putting a cap on total numbers per day to do popular walks like the Tongariro Crossing or Roy’s Peak, could help to control the impact.

“With any quota system, securing access for New Zealanders – especially those of low economic means – is important. There needs to be a sense that we, as New Zealanders, are all kaitiaki of our precious natural environment and that can only come if we all have the chance to learn about and enjoy experiences in nature.

“Future policy should be informed more deeply by Māori values. A Māori tourism operator on the Whanganui River told me he believes every boat taking tourists on that river – whose spiritual significance is now recognised through the river being granted legal personhood – should have a cultural guide. Their role would be to better inform tourists of the intertwined cultural, spiritual and natural elements of that unique environment, and to ensure respectful behaviour from visitors.

“Fundamentally, the Department of Conservation needs more resources to re-design tourist experiences in conservation areas of New Zealand, providing better infrastructure in high use, short walk areas (e.g. boardwalks) to minimise environmental damage, and dispersing more adventurous tourists to lesser-used, but still well-serviced, trails and locations.”

Declared conflict of interest: Convenor of the Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals conference 2019. 

Professor Michael Lueck, Professor of Tourism, School of Hospitality & Tourism, Auckland University of Technology, comments: 

“The report is very timely, and desperately needed. It is comprehensive and covers the most important problems, including some projections on how the future may look. It states that ‘tourism’s footprint is starting to become a source of environmental concern in New Zealand’, but it is obvious that we are well beyond the starting point – these concerns have existed for over two decades, and become increasingly urgent.

“The report deliberately does not offer any solutions or strategies, which is promised to come in the near future. It is clear that tourism cannot grow at the pace it currently does, and that New Zealand must urgently find ways to curb this growth.

“As an island nation, we are dependent on international air travel (both in- and outbound), with little opportunity for change – at least in the short term. However, domestic travel can be modified, and we can learn from other places. Electric propulsion, for example, is not just an option for road and rail travel, but developments for regional e-aircraft are well advanced. In its ambition to become the first 100% electrified airline in the world, the Canadian Harbour Air, is in the phase of testing its first electric aircraft – a modified DHC Beaver, which is more than 60 years old. Air New Zealand is also looking at e-options for its regional fleet. Jucy has introduced a subfleet of e-campers and Blue Cars has a fleet of EVs for rent on Waiheke Island and in Auckland.

“The environmental burden lies mostly in extremely popular areas, and New Zealand experiences overtourism similar to large cities in Europe (e.g., Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona), where an active anti-tourism movement arose. But in New Zealand, overtourism mostly affects natural areas, and these need to be managed carefully. A range of policy and management options are available and need to be implemented. We can learn from numerous examples around the globe, and adopt successful schemes and policies.

“The often heralded dispersal of visitors offers very limited success, often spreading the problem, rather than solving it. A good example is how Zion National Park manages their onslaught of visitors: Private cars, RVs and buses need to be left in a car park at the park entrance, and a free and frequent ‘road train’ shuttles visitors to and from the main points in the park. This could be a cost-effective solution for Milford Sound.

“It may also be prudent to rethink the National Park Act, which provides for free access to the conservation estate. Park fees have been successfully implemented in other countries (e.g., USA, South Africa), and there are fair and financially viable options to implement these, without having a toll booth at each access point.

“It appears that the main problem is the sheer number of tourists, and we need to look at slowing this growth. The often cited ‘high-value tourism’, or ‘quality over quantity’ does not always work, but it would be fairly easy to, for example, limit the number of cruise ships coming into the country. These put a disproportional burden on New Zealand’s infrastructure, environment, and culture, while the economic benefits are comparatively small.”

Declared conflict of interest: None

Mark Newton, Scientist – People, Policy and Planning, Cawthron Institute, comments: 

“This is an important report that I hope initiates a national conversation about the kind of future New Zealanders want for tourism. The report argues that tourism growth will continue until 2050, resulting in a range of environmental impacts; that government policy is insufficient to mitigate those impacts; and that this is of increasing concern to the New Zealand public.

“New Zealand has a long history of concern for the environmental impacts of tourism, but when 52% of New Zealanders now think predicted tourism growth is ‘too much’ (up from 30% in 2015), 43% think tourism puts too much pressure on New Zealand, and more than a quarter think there are too many international visitors, it’s time to take notice. [Page 72 of the report]

“We know from our research at Cawthron, and international research of other industries, that environmental impacts can be an important factor for the communities who may grant or withhold social licence to operate. But, also important is the perceived quality, or authenticity, with which governments and industry engage with, and listen to, stakeholders and indigenous groups on important issues.

“New Zealand must now decide whether it wants to make a planned transition to a more sustainable tourism future, or to trust that continued growth to 2050 is viable. For a planned transition, it will be imperative that government and industry meaningfully engage with communities, iwi and hapū to reimagine the future of tourism to ensure this vital industry can provide long-term, sustainable prosperity for New Zealand.”

Declared conflict of interest: None.

Professor Michael Hall, Department of Marketing, University of Canterbury, comments: 

“The PCE’s report represents a valuable contribution to the debate over the nature and direction of tourism in New Zealand. It correctly identifies that the fundamental issues surrounding visitor growth and its environmental, social and economic impacts have changed little in the 20 years since the previous PCE report. Despite all the talk about sustainability, it reinforces the fact that tourism in this country basically operates on a ‘business as usual’ basis with an emphasis on growth, we don’t have a good set of indicators to measure the environmental and cultural impact of tourism, and there is an over-reliance on self-regulation.

“A core issue for international tourism to New Zealand is going to be how to mitigate the emissions from tourists coming here – whether by air or sea. The number of people engaging in voluntary emissions offsetting is tiny – and New Zealanders travelling overseas actually appear worse in offsetting than some markets coming here. This is clearly not only a challenge for New Zealand’s environmental credentials but for the planet as whole.

“The report identifies some of the key environmental pressures arising from tourism but, as it notes, present policies and strategies of dealing with it are limited. As the inquiry progresses they will need to look at international practices including perhaps looking at actually limiting visitor growth in some locations.

“In some areas, undesirable environmental and social impacts are the flip side of dispersing tourists into regional New Zealand. Tourism can help support public services in some locations that might otherwise be marginal. However, many rural areas clearly need to carefully consider how they can best respond to the temporary growth in their population from tourism. Tourists are possibly more visible in the regions than in the cities but urban areas are also impacted by tourism and this is a concern that the PCE may need to consider in the next stage of the investigation.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Chris Ryan, Director, BUU China-New Zealand Tourism Research Unit, University of Waikato Management School, comments:

“The problems identified in the report are congruent with many concerns voiced in the academic literature even since Sir George Young’s book, Tourism: Blessing or Blight? published in 1973. Indeed the warnings go yet earlier as discussed by Dick Butler in his introductions to the two books published in 2005 that assessed his ‘tourist area life cycle’ concept. Yet in those days the world’s population was less, and fewer engaged in global travel, and the numbers today are probably less than those who will be travelling in a decade’s time. Thus far, the responses have been to develop new attractions and seek to follow better site management techniques.

“However, one can suggest tourism is at a critical point in its development. Despite lower pollution per passenger kilometre travelled, any such savings are being overcome by the increases in the numbers travelling. Currently, China’s middle class of some 400 million is about one-third of its population, and of this number, outbound tourists make up about 148 million. The potential for greater tourist numbers is evident, and behind China there is India with its even slightly larger population. One can, using the economist’s phrase, ceteris paribus, only expect the numbers of tourists to grow yet more with all the costs and revenues indicated in the report.

“In 2012, Ian Yeoman and John Moriarty’s FORST-funded project on scenarios for New Zealand’s tourism envisaged one possible scenario for 2050, namely that of ‘New Zealand – Eco-Paradise’.  In postulating this. they pointed out some simple basic facts. New Zealand is both a long way from other countries, and most arrive by aircraft. Hence, New Zealand, theoretically, could simply control inbound numbers by limiting airline scheduling. They envisaged an eco-friendly tourism industry based on lower numbers of inbound tourists, but on undertaking an economic analysis of the implications of such a policy, estimated that, over time, visitation would fall by 50% with a significant decline in tourism’s contribution to economic growth.

“This highlights a basic premise – tourism is at the nexus of a number of concerns – infrastructure, environmental, social, technological, and ethical which effectively are about the constructs of power and political systems. Tourism simply reflects the political will and the structures that give voice to that will. If society wishes to seek economic growth without asking what the purpose is of economic growth, then the numbers of tourists and the environmental problems listed in the report will continue unabated, unless one becomes more skilled in management. Tourism, some would argue, is not a social or environmental problem, but fundamentally a political problem where politics is about power structures. This approach changes any approach to the solution of problems, and one wonders to what extent the second report might explore these wider societal problems.

“The report is excellent in many ways, but I did wonder if it had largely ignored the role of technological development. With 5G services being introduced to New Zealand this month, the potential goes beyond simply faster communications. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and algorithm development requires not just faster communication of data – but more data. The greater the amount of data, the greater the learning and algorithm development.  Such factors permit greater and better identification of tourist types and behaviours, greater and faster means of flow control and less polluting effects. It also creates the potential for more types of tourist products, while simultaneously possibly creating a demand for the less technological product.

“As the report itself comments, one cannot necessarily assume that the status quo will be perpetuated as new technologies become evident through the internet of things – but I am of the opinion that the deficiencies in data noted by the report will be addressed in the near future, and this will permit better management of sites – but even this statement is premised on the need for more physical controls such as permits and quotas.”

Declared conflict of interest: None.