Getting over tourism

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    This is the time in every golden summer when we again hail the sight of familiar faces in the street and bond in shared pain over the holiday excesses. 

    This year (again) it’s been the  motley of buses—from the greasy diesel in the faded livery of the Howick and Eastern route buses to double decker leviathans garishly painted as billboards—that are in stark counterpoint to the sheer natural beauty and modest built environment that they roar through. 

    Though still in the comet-tail of a hot and lovely summer, we now find ourselves with room on congested roads to overtake gaggles of cyclists drawn here as to some bicycling nirvana and speedily disillusioned by our token roads, brutal hills and death-defying cycle facilities.

    It’s all vaguely disappointing. Why hadn’t we properly prepared for cyclists, one matriarch in impeccable lycra asked over an Oneroa coffee. Chance would be a fine thing, I said, but maddeningly there is no ‘we’ in expenditure on Waiheke, for all our $250 million in rates and revenues to the city hegemony over the last dozen years. 

    The ad hoc parsimonies of the 1990s still haunt us – in the motorway lamps over the village, the slew of makeshift public toilets, the ossified shambles at Matiatia and the gravel Owhanake hillside that was meant to be a temporary car park when mayor John Banks gave away—to a long-gone developer—half of our Matiatia parking land in the 90s.

    As a small entity jammed into an unweildy, ill-regulated large bureaucracy, we almost never rise to the top when it comes to budget time and the chronic carelessness shows. 

    Vaunted as a tourist destination on a pristine offshore island, we are at the pointy end of the new phenomenon of ‘overtourism’ which has become the mot du jour round the world. 

    The consequences of doubling global tourism statistics and the phenomenon of skyscraper cruise ships have shown up quickly. From the flower markets of Amsterdam to the lagoons of Thailand, overtourism sets in when destinations—lacking tools or because there are no adequate governance policies—are no longer able to manage the hospitality and the golden goose approaches collapse. 

    Tour guides in tiny Capri face heavy penalties if they let their parties linger for window-shopping, robbing local businesses of the possible bonanza of lucrative celebrity purchases to tide them over the Mediterranean winter. 

    My feeling over the summer here has been one of regret for the queues, the potholes, the barrage of vile cerise pink signage cable-tied to a frieze of posts in public spaces and the noisome toilets even in Oneroa where the island’s only council waste water plant – a Dutch auction for years for local businesses – apparently doesn’t extend to more than two cubicles.

    The island was told by Auckland Council last year that an upgrade was waiting for some central government funding, since $400,000 from rates was not enough for the job. 

    We would be so much better if we were able to resource our own aspirations, prevent our own people being squeezed out and got to welcome those who visit us with more grace. However, there may be signs of sanity. 

    New government guidelines to help destinations around New Zealand were announced a fortnight ago, sounding promising as a practical tool to assist with planning, managing, marketing and developing as a tourism destination and I’d like us to give it a crack.

    “Destination Management allows communities, districts and regions to determine what tourism could look like for them, the benefits they want to get and help with responding to changing economic conditions and attitudes,” said Iain Cossar of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment which fielded the guidelines  based on research and international best practice that would allow destinations to tailor a plan that will work for their specific circumstances and goals.

    The character and distinctiveness we have managed to maintain here are what draw the crowds and we knew it 20 years ago when we thought we had the choice and wrote the chimeric Essentially Waiheke planning document setting out our preference for being a traveller, rather than a tourist, destination.

    Travellers, we noted, stay longer at a destination, get off the beaten path, support local businesses, respect locals going about their day-to-day lives, learn to understand the local environment and culture and take away a sense of value and the vicarious stewardship that  well-travelled kiwis have understood for generations. They also travel during off-peak periods. 

    It remains to be seen if our local board has an appetite to set us up to be a poster-boy for the new guidelines and we can shift at least some of the depressing stasis.
    Liz Waters

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