The elephant in the room

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    A rather marvellous elephant has moved in next door.

    He arrived Friday and has spent his first weekend staring serenely at the puzzled looks of drivers as they navigate the junction just by Wisca.

    It would be fair to say he’s engendered a mixed response – after all, not everyone wants an elephant living down the road – but I already love the magnificent misfit. I especially love the way the bustling stream of cars, buses and taxis heading on shopping, beach or partying excursions now slows as they pass under his gaze – just a little of their occupants’ pre-Christmas urgency dampened from having to ingest the idea that there’s a rather large pachyderm taken up residence at the end of Queens Drive.

    This time of year, Waiheke thrills to novelty and change, and it’s not just elephants – few places in the world, for example, would surely welcome three aliens landing on the roof of the village store with so little fanfare. But as the holiday homes, hotels, motels and b&bs all start to swell at the seams, and the beaches, cafes and restaurants throng to the seasonal hubbub, the island’s tolerance for the unconventional expands.

    Visitors’ expectations have already been honed by glossy brochures showing smiling faces quaffing cellar door wines or climbing aboard shuttle buses to be whisked off around an island loaded with adventures or experiences. And residents’ expectations have already been honed by years of watching visitor numbers increase and the range of entertainment on offer expand. Anything, as the song says, goes.

    As well as our regular readers, some of you picking up this week’s Gulf News will no doubt be occasional or first-time visitors to Waiheke making the most of the holiday season. This provides a magnificent opportunity to talk to the two very different tribes who inhabit this island over the summer. And if there’s one additional message it would be worth squeezing in between the traditional glad tidings of comfort, joy and goodwill, it would be one of balance.

    I don’t want to get too po-faced about life just as everyone clocks off for the year, but there’s a large national debate to be had over tourism in New Zealand. It has just been spearheaded by a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton entitled rather menacingly Pristine, popular… imperilled? 

    I suppose if there’s one positive to be drawn from this investigation into the environmental consequences of projected tourism growth in New Zealand, it’s that it ends with a question mark. Mr Upton may paint a worrying picture of the impact of both overseas and domestic tourism and shows how the existing suite of policies designed to lessen that impact will likely fall short in the coming years, but he does leave the door open for solutions. To this end, the commissioner intends to release a second report next year “to propose some of the policies we will need to be prepared to debate if we wish to avoid the incremental and irreversible harm that business as usual could hold in store for us”.

    On Waiheke, we would do well to be part of that debate because, although many of the headlines generated by this report focus on the idea of filling New Zealand’s wildernesses with queues of camera-toting visitors, its overall theme is of huge significance closer to home, too:

    “New Zealanders themselves – often as a result of their own overseas travels – have started to sense that experiences they have taken for granted at home are much rarer and much more at risk than they had realised. In selling access to these experiences, tourism risks becoming an extractive industry in its own right. An inexorable growth in numbers risks an irreversible decline in both environmental quality and human experience of it. That could run the risk of ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg’.”

    Both as visitors to and as residents of Waiheke, we can be part of the solution to striking the right balance between “pristine” and “popular” and, hopefully, remove the threat of having our vital tourism industry “imperilled”. If, that is, we are able to address a few elephants in the room.

    Besides, elephants are much more fun to have as neighbours.

    From all of us at Gulf News, we wish you a very merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. • James Belfield

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