Too many tourists and cows – but sustainable management policies will treat them (and culling) differently

Concerns throughout the country about tourism and its adverse impacts – crowded towns, clogged roads, dangerous drivers, filthy freedom campers, congested trails – were examined by Mike White in Noted in August. He asked if we need to limit the number of tourists coming here, a question supported by the statistics he produced.

A hundred years ago, 8000 overseas visitors came here (each year, presumably).

By the early 1960s, that had risen to 100,000; then 500,000 in the 1980s. Through the 1990s, international tourist numbers rocketed by 85% to 1.8 million. There were static years after the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, but recently things have boomed again. Encouraged by cheaper jet fuel, more airlines flying here, and the middle classes of China and India beginning to travel, there has been a 40% growth in overseas visitors in the past five years, to 3.9 million a year at present. That’s predicted to expand to 5.1 million by 2025. Nobody is suggesting the growth will stop there.

White acknowledged that tourism is our biggest earner, reaping $39 billion last year ($16 billion from overseas tourists – 20% of our exports – and $23 billion from Kiwis holidaying at home). More than 200,000 people are directly employed in tourism, about 8% of the workforce.

It’s unquestionably a cornerstone of the country’s economy.

But as with dairying, the backbone of the country’s economy, there is a down side.

For the year to June 2020, the Ministry for Primary Industries expects dairy exports to rise 8.4% to $19.6 billion, with rising prices offsetting a slight decline in milk production.

But dairying increasingly is being regulated to mitigate its environmental impacts and Environment Minister David Parker last year said dairy farmers may have to reduce cow numbers in some parts of the country to meet the tougher measures  being considered by the Government.

The down side for tourism identified in White’s article similarly is an awareness of the environmental costs of tourism.

He referenced a March 2019 survey by the tourism industry which found 43% of New Zealanders believed international tourism was putting too much pressure on the country – a big increase from only 18% three years before.

The proportion of New Zealanders who think visitor numbers are too high has doubled in that same period to 26% – up from 21% in just the past six months to an all-time high. And for the first time, more than half of New Zealanders, 52%, thought the predicted growth of tourism – a million-plus extra tourists in the next six years – was too high (41% thought it was just right).

Was Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis sensitive to the changing public mood?

Apparently not.

According to White, Davis took comfort in the fact that 93% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed tourism was good for the country.

“I think what happens is the 7% who don’t support it get most of the air time.”

But as White pointed out, the number who “strongly” agreed tourism was good for New Zealand had slumped from 56% to 46% in the past year, its lowest-ever level.

Sure, New Zealanders support tourism generally – but, increasingly, not at current or forecast numbers.

Davis also ignored enlightening regional figures. In Otago, 69% of residents thought there was too much pressure from international tourists (rising to 76% in Queenstown). The same percentage of Otago residents felt the predicted tourism growth was too high – along with 61% in Canterbury and 68% in Northland.

Davis seems to be remaining unbudged by the warning this week from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) Simon Upton that increasing numbers of tourists are eroding the very attributes that make New Zealand such an attractive country to visit.

In a report on the environmental consequences of projected tourism growth in New Zealand, Upton says tourism is often seen as an environmentally benign form of economic development, but it places a number of strains on the environment.  Among them:

  • 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.

Environmental pressures are likely to grow as international visitor numbers rise to an estimated 10-13 million annually by 2050.

The commissioner says the existing policy mix is unlikely to prevent a worsening of tourism’s environmental burden but his policy recommendations will be made in a second report next year.

The Science Media Centre asked experts to comment on the PCE’s report.

The respondents to this invitation called for constraints of some sort.

  • Professor Regina Scheyvens, Professor of Development Studies at  Massey University:

“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.”

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

“”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.”


“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.”

Professor Michael Hall, in the Department of Marketing at the University of Canterbury:

“The PCE’s report … 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.”

Professor Chris Ryan, Director, BUU China-New Zealand Tourism Research Unit at the University of Waikato Management School –

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 … only expect the numbers of tourists to grow yet more with all the costs and revenues indicated in the report.”

But whereas Parker is ready to cut cattle numbers, Davis seems reluctant to cut tourist numbers.

Reminded of the sheer numbers of tourists predicted by 2050, he was asked if he will  cut the volume of numbers.

The government does not have plans to limit the numbers, he replied.

What it does have is plans to manage the numbers who do come in.

It has been taking this approach for the past two years and wants tourism to be socially and economically sustainable.

But that’s much the same as the aim for food production in general and dairying in particular.

Dairy farmers will be left wondering why they must reduce cow numbers whereas tourist numbers will remain uncurbed.

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