Tourism is putting increasing pressure on the environment, after successive governments focussed on growing the industry more than controlling its impacts, says a report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton.

Greenhouse gas emissions, crowding of popular destinations, issues with disposing of waste, and over-loading of wastewater treatment systems causing spills into lakes and beaches, are among the consequences of New Zealand’s success as a popular travel destination. 

While international visits are a big part of the tourism picture, Kiwis taking a break in their own country are responsible for the most tourist activity and spend more than overseas visitors: $23 billion for the year ending March 2018, compared with $16.2 billion spending by international tourists, the report says.

The list of impacts pays particular attention to greenhouse gases, given that most overseas visitors get here by plane and that some tourist attractions are already being affected by climate change. The sector’s response to climate change hasn’t always been ideal: when climate change-related melting made it difficult to walk to New Zealand’s two most famous glaciers, people switched to using helicopters so they could still see what remains of the Fox and Franz Josef glacier ice. This kind of “maladaptive” approach – increasing greenhouse emissions to cope with the effects of climate change — is probably not sustainable for the industry in the long term, says today’s report from Upton’s office.

The report includes calculations of tourism’s contribution to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint, and concludes that around nine per cent of New Zealand’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions are from tourism. That percentage does not include emissions generated overseas, such as flights taken to get here. After including international air travel and other offshore carbon emissions, greenhouse gases generated by New Zealand tourism were estimated to be 12.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, with around a third coming from air travel.

Of the total 12.5 million, about 5.2 million tonnes was generated beyond New Zealand’s borders, by flying and other activities, and 7.3 million tonnes was generated within New Zealand, including domestic flights, other modes of travel, energy use and other impacts. The domestic portion alone was equal to 9 percent of New Zealand’s 2017 carbon emissions. (More recent official emissions tallies from the government aren’t yet available).

Ready for ‘Flygskam’?

The report highlights the Swedish-made concept of Flygskam – shame about producing emissions by flying – and says that this, along with regulatory caps on greenhouse gases, might limit people’s ability or willingness to travel. But for now, projections say that international visitor numbers will increase. The number of international tourists could rise from just under four million a year today to 10-13 million a year by 2050, the report says, although the real total depends on a host of factors. 

While Australia is New Zealand’s biggest source of overseas tourists, the six other countries that generate the most international visitors are far away: China, United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. 98 per cent of international visitors arrived by plane in the year ending March 2019 says the report. Nor are cruise ships a low-emissions answer: the global average cruise emissions per passenger have been estimated to be the same as a return economy class flight between London and Tokyo, it says.

“Tourism is often seen as an environmentally benign form of economic development. This…has probably shielded it from the scrutiny attached to other industries such as agriculture,” says Upton’s report.  Yet: “The tourism sector in New Zealand is wholly dependent on the quality of the environment we offer to the world. If the way we manage tourism leads to a progressive decline in the quality of that environment, it will undermine the reputation and performance of the tourism sector.”

The road to Waikaremoana

In a brief history of New Zealand tourism, the report goes back to pre-European domestic tourism by Maori, and the importance of concepts of such as manaakitanga when it comes to welcoming visitors. On the flipside, efforts by iwi such as Tuhoe to reduce the environmental impacts of tourism on their land — for example from a new road to Lake Waikaremoana — have not always been welcomed by the government in its keenness to foster growth. 

While the government has mostly given up directly running the industry, successive governments have increased tourism revenue through taxpayer-funded overseas ad campaigns. International tourism is now New Zealand’s single biggest export earner, overtaking dairy in 2017 and bringing in a fifth of our foreign exchange earnings. “TNZ currently spends $117 million per year on marketing Aotearoa New Zealand’s tourism offering internationally. This campaign focuses on high-value markets and emphasises shoulder seasons,” notes the report. 

But while tourist numbers have boomed, efforts to increase the spend per visitor and spread visitors out more evenly throughout the year have not really succeeded, the report from Upton’s office concludes. Average international visitor spend per day and the average length of stay have remained fairly static for the past two decades, it says.

“Once inflation is accounted for, per-visitor spend actually fell during this period” it says. “Since 2000, the average proportion of visitors arriving in summer (34 per cent), autumn (23 per cent), winter (19 per cent) and spring (24 per cent) has remained essentially constant.”

Where’s the tourism numbers cap?

As well as creating emissions, the sharp rise in helicopter tourism to Fox and Franz Josef glaciers illustrates another issue with tourism strategy – that wealthier, higher-spending tourists aren’t necessarily taking pressure off natural resources, compared to, say, larger numbers of hikers catching buses to their destinations and staying in shared accommodation. The government does not appear to be truly choosing high-spenders over lower-spending visitors, because it hasn’t capped overall numbers, the report says. 

“Increasing the productivity of the tourism industry – through value-led growth, increased seasonal dispersal and improvements in tourism workforce capability – is seen as a key means of addressing the less desirable aspects of tourism growth. The underlying logic is rarely stated explicitly, but appears to involve an assumption that spending growth is less environmentally harmful than visitor growth,” says the report. 

But in reality: “value-led tourism growth may actually worsen those pressures that are linked with consumption. Higher-value visitors, by definition, consume more goods and services, all of which have an associated greenhouse gas and solid waste footprint. To the extent that these goods and services are relatively energy intensive (e.g. car rather than bus travel, hotel rather than campground accommodation, helicopter rides rather than hiking), high-value visitors will again have a relatively large greenhouse gas footprint.”

While the report concludes it is possible for smaller number of wealthier tourists to put less pressure on wastewater and waste disposal services, that only works if the total number of visitors falls.  “Any such improvement relies crucially on any growth in higher-spending tourists being accompanied by
 a reduction in their lower-spending peers. It is far from clear that this is the intention. The New Zealand-Aotearoa Government Tourism Strategy states that “we want the value of tourism to continue to grow faster than volume”, but provides no mention of limiting volume itself.”

Time to limit cruise ship visits?

Responding to Upton’s office’s report, Michael Lueck, a professor of tourism at AUT’s School of Hospitality & Tourism, said the government should consider outright caps. “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,” he said.

Michael Hall, a marketing professor at the University of Canterbury, said the report reinforced the lack of true focus on sustainability in tourism. “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,” he said. “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.”

Upton and his office are planning a second report next year covering what New Zealand can do to reduce the impacts set out in this report.

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