Credit: Dive! Tutukaka

Posted on 18 February 2021

Expert comment: PCE report on sustainable tourism

Today, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released their latest report 'Not 100% – but four steps closer to sustainable tourism'. Here's what our experts had to say: 


Nick Lewis, Blue economy theme leader

The initiatives announced are welcome recognition that Aotearoa needs to imagine the tourism futures it wants and to act to secure them. Such initiatives are long overdue.

For decades government has managed economic development by pursuing growth on the basis that every dollar of export revenue is equal in value to Aotearoa as any other. It is crucial for sustainability transitions that we rethink this approach, especially in tourism, which has such major impacts on our landscapes, physical and social. These impacts really do differ radically by place and type of tourism. 

The establishment of Destination Management Plans and their links to government funding for tourism development is the most promising of the initiatives. The DMPs aim to empower well organised communities to envisage and encourage different tourism futures.

It is deeply encouraging to see local communities and tangata whenua put at the core of futures making in this way. However, to work, the DMPs will need to be conceived by genuinely empowered community actors, institutionalised at appropriate geographical scales, have genuine leverage over enterprises, and avoid capture by vested interests.

On the other hand, the initiatives could do more to signal a decisive interruption to business as usual in tourism or lay out a decisive new direction. Growth in numbers still appears to be the national game.

Singling out freedom campers, as opposed to, for example, low engagement high impact package tourists, sends an unfortunate signal about where Destination Planning might go.

Perhaps government might consider firmer commitments to a stronger emphasis on ecotourism; funding packages for restorative tourism or community-owned tourism initiatives; more stringent certification or licensing for package tourism operators; and absolute limits to tourism numbers.

Covid recovery is a one-off opportunity to build something new. We can’t afford to squander it by being overly conservative.


Chris Rosin, project co-leader for Growing marine ecotourism/Lincoln University


International ‘departure tax’ on air travel

This reflects on the implications for the attraction of New Zealand as a destination, the impact on NZ-citizens travelling internationally and potential benefits for the environment as well as the usage of the funds collected. While being progressive by ‘doing something’, it does not fully address the implications in terms of reputational impacts for NZ as a signatory to international climate agreements, especially with regard to the potential for continued growth in tourism numbers to eliminate any benefits to total carbon emissions from efficiency gains.

The recommendations on ‘freedom camping’ are appropriate

But like those directed to international air travel, they raise a potential red herring. The focus on only one aspect of tourism runs the risk of ignoring other activities that have similar social and environmental impacts. The issue of freedom camping should be addressed in the broader context of dealing to the demands, expectations and practices of all tourists that conflict with the social and environmental values and expectations of the communities where tourism occurs.

Caution in framing issues within a narrow focus

The proposal to introduce destination management plans is attractive – but it does not guarantee that special or more powerful interests will not hold sway in the negotiation of such plans. The report suggests that these will arrive at agreed levels and forms of tourism; but they can equally reinforce a currently ascendant form or level that does not account for the diversity of opinion. There is likely a role for a trained facilitator to contribute to the development of the planning process. Similarly, the designation of “environmental performance standards” is presented without much consideration of the complexities and uncertainties in doing so.

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