Over tourism: Auckland Unlimited working to prevent Aotea Great Barrier and Waiheke islands being overrun by Kiwis

The surge in Kiwi visitors to Aotea Great Barrier Island and Waiheke Island is forcing a rethink on tourism.

Domestic tourism is booming as many of the three million plus trips overseas a year by Kiwis and now being taken at home and Great Barrier is especially vulnerable to having its limited resources, and the tolerance of its local population, stretched to breaking point.

Residents on theislandsare being surveyed on what sort of tourism experiences they offer and the type of visitors they want.

The island is nearly100km north-east of Auckland city and has a resident population of around 1000, off-grid and is now facing a wave of domestic tourists at all times of the year.

Auckland Unlimited, the region’s ratepayer funded tourism promotion body,and is working with local boards and manu whenua on plans to avoid resistance from locals to increased visitor numbers which it concedes it does not accurate numbers on.

Auckland Unlimited programme manager Annie Dundas said there had been an ”incredible influx” of Kiwi visitors to both islands and while Waiheke had experience of this, the unrelenting flow was hitting Great Barrier harder.

”There’s been no off switch. People live on the Barrier for certain reasons and tourism over the summer months and this helps supplement their income for winter.But you’re getting a tonne of Aucklanders and others who travelling there over winter so there’s been no down time and it’s been fairly full-on.”

On the generator and solar-powered island there was a just a small tourism labour force, even less accommodation for them since more properties were being put on Airbnb and food supply limits.

A series of surveys are being done this week asking locals about their views on tourism, what they think is working, any concerns they may have and what they would like to see happen for the future.This will be followed by workshops taking place on Waiheke Island on 12-13 July and on Aotea Great Barrier Island on 15-16 July.

Dundas said the lack of figures about the number of visitors to the islands and what they did there would be a key part of the work it was doing.

”We have some data but this exercise is to work out the collation of data so we know what we’re talking about.Great Barrier is difficult because of the number of private vessels that turn up there over summer.”

Waiheke had been popular with overseas tourists who can no longer come here due to closed borders but Great Barrier had not been on the radar for most foreign visitors.

Izzy Fordham, the chair of the Aotea Great Barrier local board said the number of visitors had been described by one travel operator as an ”unrelenting march” since the country had come out of its hard lockdown last year.

She said her board had discussed putting caps on the number of visitors.

”Will it come to that, who knows?

Eateries had run short on food at times although most visitors were accepting of what to expect.

”If you want nightlife and shopping malls you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Some visitors had problems driving on narrow shingle roads and big motorhomes could be a problem.

”It’s no good having hordes of people come if we can’t look after them,” said Fordham.

Sea Link Ferries, Fly My Sky and Barrier Air provide public linksto Aotea.
Barrier Air flies 42 times a week and its chief executive Grant Bacon said summer had been busy with some record days and shoulder seasons have been better than usual.

He welcomed the Auckland Unlimited moves to develop a strategy for the island.

”It is great to see that this is a focus for the council to understand the tourism experience whilst on Great Barrier and to understand the market feedback and its potential in the future.”

Tourist attractions include a night sky experience, gin and brewing businesses as well as tramping, fishing, swimming and surfing.”We very rarely find that people haven’t enjoyed their time on the island but ultimately an enhanced experience with a focus around the great local products , said Bacon.

One luxury business was also starting up on the island.Luxury LAS offers stays on a 20m catamaran, the Pāua Cat.

The overnight stays for up to eight people are priced at around $7000 and chief executive Kyria Warren said the trips were started in response to climbing demand from Kiwis who can’t travel overseas.

Dundas said the work underway could provide a template for sustainable tourism in other places.

”Whether that’s a growth strategy or managing the growth that they have,.” she said.

”Tourism can provide opportunities to help them thrive but there is a tipping point so the community is not a fan of tourism.I think Great Barrier is a great opportunity to get this right.”

Destination Great Barrier Island (DGBI) says it has been campaigning for the development of a destination management plan for the island.

The organisation’s chair Derek Bell said all electricity must be generated by costly on-site power generation and the cost of freight and access makes it more expensive than the mainland both for living and for setting up a business.

”Nevertheless, we need to act now with the resident and visitor populations increasing because of the island’s spectacular landscapes, beaches, taonga, welcoming community and the opportunity to get away from the daily pressures of city living,” he said.

He hoped the work would mark the start of a new era of planning around tourism in the Auckland region, where the community can play a leading role in agreeing what the right capacities are for hosting visitors in a way that is not detrimental to the island.

Figures for domestic tourism electronic card transaction showed spending was up 25 per cent to $10.6 billion in the year ended April 2021, compared with the previous year.

The surge in domestic tourism reflected the $7b to $9b that Kiwis are no longer spending a year on overseas trips.

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