Hot Water Beach. Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand's growing overtourism problem

Visitor numbers have grown to 3.9 million annually. In five years, they’re expected to pass the five million mark, and urgent action is needed to avoid the fate of overseas hot spots.

A new word recently entered the English lexicon: overtourism. It describes a situation where the number of visitors to a tourist destination reaches the point where local inhabitants, and even tourists themselves, are negatively affected.

A less polite term is people pollution. From Stavanger, Norway, to Queenstown, New Zealand, local authorities are embracing the economic benefits of mass tourism while simultaneously wrestling with the infrastructural demands it creates and striving to mitigate the environmental and societal costs.

The statistics tell the story. Worldwide, an estimated 25 million people travelled internationally in the 1950s. Now, the figure is 1.5 billion and rising.

The global tourism boom has been brought about by the growth of the middle class, the availability of cheap flights and the proliferation of ever-larger cruise ships that sometimes penetrate the very hearts of environmentally vulnerable cities – witness Venice – and tower intimidatingly over the historic buildings that their passengers have come to admire.

Read more: How many tourists are too many? | Is a tourist tax the right response to New Zealand's tourism boom?

Popular culture has come into play, too, notably the demand for travel to destinations made desirable by their use as locations for movies and television series. Our own Hobbiton, near Matamata, attracts an extraordinary 600,000 visitors a year, but the impact is gentle compared with less benign examples overseas. The picturesque old town in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik has been swamped by a wave of mass tourism driven by Game of Thrones, and a once-pristine island in Thailand is being ravaged by hordes of tourists jostling to take selfies at a spot made famous by the otherwise forgotten 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.

These Instagram tourists often display minimal interest in the history or culture of the places they visit. They are inclined to favour McDonald’s over ethnic food and often show scant concern for local norms of behaviour and dress. For younger tourists especially, it’s selfies by day and partying by night. Once pictures have been taken and posted on social media as proof they’ve been there, the locale becomes almost irrelevant.

Rome. Photo/Getty Images

The effects of mass tourism on local communities can be devastating, transforming them into virtual theme parks. Hallstatt, Austria, which has the misfortune to have been dubbed the most beautiful village in the world, has a population of 800 but must cope with more than 1 million selfie-stick-wielding tourists a year. In Dubrovnik’s old town, which has Unesco World Heritage status, the 1500 residents compete for space with 1.3 million foreigners. Venice’s population has halved in a generation, largely because locals can no longer afford to live there. And, in Thailand, once-exquisite beaches are choked with garbage and waste from bars and restaurants that is discharged untreated into the sea.

Although partly protected by its isolation, New Zealand is not immune to these trends, as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton highlighted in a pre-Christmas report. Visitor numbers have grown from 500,000 in the 1980s to 3.9 million today. By 2025, they’re expected to pass the five million mark, and the strain is starting to show.

Queenstown, Lake Tekapo’s Church of the Good Shepherd, Milford Sound, the Huka Falls, Franz Josef, Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing have all been cited as hot spots where visitor numbers have stretched infrastructure to the limit, and in some cases (notably, the Alpine Crossing) raised safety concerns. Other sites to have attracted adverse comment include Waitangi and the Mermaid Pools at Matapouri Bay (Northland), both of which featured on a world map of overtourism compiled last year by British company Responsible Travel, which promotes sustainable tourism. Tellingly, rubbish and pollution at the latter site led to access being forbidden last summer under a rāhui imposed by the pools’ Māori guardians. Today’s tourists are not always grateful guests, and sometimes even less so when they don’t have to pay, as New Zealand’s experience with freedom campers attests.

Industry propaganda sometimes gives the impression that tourism is a painless form of economic growth, but overseas experience tells us that rampant tourism is neither benign nor sustainable. And, as the tragedy at Whakaari/White Island reminded us, the desire to provide overseas visitors with the wow factor can carry risks far beyond mere overcrowding and environmental damage. The lessons are there if we wish to heed them.

This editorial was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.