New Zealand seeks a greener kind of tourism as it reopens borders after Covid

At the mouth of Milford Sound, the car parks sit empty. Of the 40 spaces reserved for convoys of buses, just two are occupied. The cliffs, rising sheer from dark, still water, are capped by mist, waterfalls unravelling like twine, nothing to interrupt the view. The cruise ships that once appeared over the horizon haven’t visited in years. When the ferry sets off, an entire floor of vinyl seats sits unoccupied.

These are the last days of New Zealand’s forced isolation from the world’s tourists, and even Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, considered the crown jewel of New Zealand’s natural landscapes, is sparsely attended. Its beauty has long made it one of the country’s biggest tourism draws. Despite being extraordinarily remote – no mobile phone service or wifi, no clusters of shops and restaurants, one road in and out – Milford Sound welcomed almost 900,000 visitors in 2019, to a settlement with a permanent population of fewer than 200. The year the pandemic hit, it was expected to surpass 1 million.

In a few days, the drawbridge will creak down, and tourists from around the world will be welcomed back. The government has been at pains to attract visitors, with prime minister Jacinda Ardern embarking on her first international trip in two years to say the country was “open for business”.

But it is also in the midst of a reckoning over what its tourism future should look like – and a growing sense that things shouldn’t go back to the way they were.

The central conundrum plagues many scenic tourism spots: people are drawn to isolation, tranquillity, untouched beauty – then their presence can jeopardise the very qualities that drew them there in the first place. In Tripadvisor reviews from Milford’s pre-pandemic days, two themes feature over and over: the beauty of the place, and the peak-season crowds.

Visitors take pictures from a cruise ship in Milford Sound.
Visitors take pictures from a cruise ship in Milford Sound. Photograph: Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

“The place was heaving,” one tourist wrote. “Literally hundreds of people in all directions.”

“Hordes of people,” said another. “Don’t come here to experience this beautiful place in isolation.”

“It is incomparably gorgeous and awe-inspiring. It is also a tourist machine. Huge numbers of people arrive here daily via buses, planes, cars and helicopters,” a visitor concluded. “Everything that is wonderful and horrible about tourism.”

Over the past decade, New Zealand has become acutely aware of the “wonderful and horrible” of tourism. Before Covid, tourism was the country’s biggest export, accounting for 20% of the export market and approaching 10% of GDP. Returning visitors will be a crucial shot in the arm for cafes, restaurants and tourism operators that have spent two years struggling to survive. But tourism also caused tensions – locals complained of overcrowding, littering, lack of investment in infrastructure to host people, and the fear that fragile natural environments are being permanently damaged.

The era of Instagram and influencers can throw those dynamics into overdrive. Locations moved at warp speed from “undiscovered gem” to endlessly replicated backdrop, engulfed – and often threatened – by eager visitors.

“We want people to come to these incredible places. We want people to experience them. But we also want to make sure that we’re protecting them,” said Kiritapu [Kiri] Allan, minister for conservation and associate minister for culture and heritage. “And that we can hand it over to the next generations in a state that hasn’t been completely destroyed by a human footprint.”

Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is the country’s most famous attraction, but spent years unregulated and overcrowded.
Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is the country’s most famous attraction, but spent years unregulated and overcrowded. Photograph: Tess McClure/The Guardian

Now the government wants to reshape the way the country does tourism altogether. Last July, Stuart Nash, the tourism minister, vowed that the days of unlimited tour buses would never return to Piopiotahi. Beyond that, the site would be a “test case” for the rest of the country, he said, as it tries to remake its tourism sector into a more sustainable, controlled operation, that funds infrastructure in the communities that host it. In Milford, the proposals are significant: controlling entry, capping numbers, charging a standard infrastructure fee for a visit.

Allan said the tensions are stark in Milford, but it’s a national conundrum. “I’m seeing similar strains across the rest of the country.”

In Te Anau, Milford’s nearest town, absence of visitors during the pandemic has driven many businesses to the edge of collapse. About 85% of Piopiotahi’s visitors are from overseas, said Paul Norris, chief conservation officer of RealNZ, which runs ferry tours in the sound. Losing them was an immense economic shock. “It’s been survival mode,” he said. “You can imagine, the last two years, there’s been an awful lot of people who have left the tourism industry.”

“I don’t think it should go back to the way it was. But like everything – behind four or five words, there’s a multitude of layers of things that were happening,” he said. Many of the discussions have been dominated by the peak season, which is really only a few weeks of the year, he added – in the winter months, things are more manageable.

Muriel Johnstone, an elder of Ōraka Aparima Rūnaka, said the fjords are a “cradle of mythology” for the tribe – and its importance to Māori has not been reflected in the way it has operated. “Over many years, mana whenua [those with traditional authority over the land] and others have been concerned by the intensification of tourism,” she said. “Huge uncontrolled growth… has diminished the sense of awe and welcome that used to greet visitors.”

The Mackinnon Memorial at the Mackinnon Pass
The Mackinnon Memorial at the Mackinnon Pass – reputedly ‘the finest walk in the world’. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Mana whenua must be placed at the heart of the new vision for Piopiotahi, she said– and it is Māori principals like manaakitanga [hospitality], and kaitiakitanga, [stewardship of the natural world] that can guide it forward.

Out in the basin of the fjord, the ferry does a slow turn, making its way back to the harbour. The water stretches out ahead of it, unbroken. “This is about as good as it gets,” said one man, standing at the railing. In the wake, dolphins ripple through the water. As the boat approaches an enormous waterfall, a boy stands at the bow, feeling the spray on his face. His father stands behind him, taking a photograph. There’s little competition for the perfect shot.