How much is too much? Waiheke tourism put under spotlight

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    “Waikiki is crazy, it seems like Waikiki times two,” Honolulu resident Isaiah Tavares told Hawai’i’s TV station Khon2 late last month. “It’s a balance, you got to find that balance.”

    The US Pacific island state of Hawai’i is bouncing back from Covid – really bouncing. More than 27,500 visitors touched down in the renowned tourism destination each day in June putting the industry almost on an even keel compared to pre-pandemic 2018 and 2019.

    But even as the money and the jobs roll back in, Hawai’i is using this reset as a way to reappraise how their islands “do tourism”. Even the state’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green reckons the overall goal is to have fewer people visit and introduce fees for visiting harbours, bays and hiking trails.

    All this comes as the University of Hawai’i publishes a survey of residents which overwhelmingly calls for control of tourism to prevent it destroying not only the wellbeing and traditions of those who live on the islands, but also the very reason why so many people visit in the first place.

    Although Waikiki and Waiheke are poles apart in Pacific holiday destinations, our own small island would do well to heed the warnings of those who have spent decades pandering to the build-it-and-they-will-come mantra of a hungry tourism industry.

    Even our own region’s overview of visitor goals – Destination AKL 2025 Plan – published more than three years ago conceded that simply opening the floodgates to the Hauraki Gulf wouldn’t cut it.

    “There are small but growing concerns that tourism is impacting on Aucklanders’ liveability but this is limited to pinch points such as Waiheke Island,” it states. “In the future, there is a need to ensure that Auckland residents feel comfortable with the level of visitation (from all markets), and to make sure destination management systems are put in place prior to host community concerns being expressed.”

    That study posited “the use of pricing as a mechanism to help better manage visitor flows and achieve sustainability goals” and “differential pricing, with separate rates for New Zealanders and international visitors”.

    Interestingly, the two examples that the Destination AKL authors deemed had been able to “protect and preserve natural environments very successfully and provide valuable learning lessons” were game parks in Botswana (where a premium charge is reinvested into sustainability) and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan (which enforces a minimum daily spend of US$250).

    Waiheke will next week embark on its own course of self-examination as to where we want our tourism industry to head (you can read Sophie Boladeras’ story on page 5). But as we map out how this vital source of income can be harnessed while also allowing Waiheke to remain an enjoyable place to live, it’s going to be important that we don’t become to blinkered to the broader potential for what we can put in place here.

    Any destination management plan for Waiheke and Aotea Great Barrier Island must surely dovetail with the issues of kaitiakitanga and custodianship raised in last month’s government response to the Sea Change report on the Hauraki Gulf. And in the same week as Auckland Council’s 10-year “recovery budget” trumpeted $950,000 over three years to start business cases for new toilets in Oneroa and a pump-out facility at Matiatia as well as $1.9 million for the renewal of some of our dilapidated walking tracks, wouldn’t it be a breakthrough if some of our spending reflected pre-determined goals rather than patching over a situation that’s somehow outridden our expectations?

    But the most important aspect of how we nut out how to entice and entertain visitors must be determining what type of community we are inviting them into. We must not only see the value of tourism seep into every street and home on Waiheke – but also ensure that those streets and homes are filled with the vibrant and diverse residents that make the island special.

    When Kāpiti was drafting its own destination management plan in March this year one of the key questions that resonated was “what makes up the Kāpiti experience, what will visitors see when they’re in the district?”

    This lower North Island region is on a very different trajectory to Waiheke and desperately trying to grow its visitor numbers. But at the heart of its strategy was the need for social wellbeing and a shared aspiration to create opportunities that led to a stronger and more prosperous community, to better schools, employment, connectivity, identity and civic pride, and make their region a better place to raise families and children.

    We already know Waiheke is a tourism “hotspot” but if, when we draft our own destination management plan, we can also ensure that social wellbeing and community sit at the heart of it, then we can make sure that we don’t become too hot, or too cold. Rather, something just right.   • James Belfield

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