AAt the mouth of the Milford Sound parking lots are empty. Of the 40 seats set aside for the convoys of buses, only two are occupied. Rocks that rise from the dark still water, covered with fog, waterfalls bloom like twine, nothing interferes with the view. Cruise ships that once appeared on the horizon have not been visited for years. When the ferry departs, the entire floor of vinyl chairs remains unoccupied.
These are the last days of forcing New Zealand isolation from the tourists of the world, and even Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, which is considered a gem of New Zealand’s natural landscapes, is rarely visited. Its beauty has long made it one of the largest tourist destinations in the country. Despite the unusual remoteness – no mobile or Wi-Fi, no crowds of shops and restaurants, one road entry and exit – Milford Sound in 2019, the settlement with a permanent population of less than 200 people received nearly 900,000 visitors. It was expected that in the year when the pandemic came, it would exceed 1 million.
In a few days the drawbridge will creak and tourists from all over the world will welcomed back. The government tried to attract visitors, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proceeded to it first international trip two years later say the country is “open to business”.
But he’s also in the midst of calculations about what his tourist future should look like – and a growing sense that things shouldn’t go back to the way they were.
The central puzzle excites many picturesque tourist places: people are attracted to isolation, tranquility, untouched beauty – then their presence can jeopardize the qualities that attracted them there in the first place. Tripadvisor reviews from Milford’s pre-pandemic days feature two themes over and over again: the beauty of the place and the crowd at the peak of the season.
“The place was lifting“- wrote one tourist. “Literally hundreds of people in all directions.”
“Hordes of people,” said another. “Don’t come here to experience this beautiful place in solitude.”
“It’s incomparably chic and impressive. It is also a tourist car. A huge number of people come here every day by buses, planes, cars and helicopters, ”the visitor concluded. “Everything is wonderful and horrible in tourism.”
Over the last decade, New Zealand became acutely aware of the “beauty and horror” of tourism. Prior to Covid tourism was the country’s largest export, accounting for 20% of the export market and approaching 10% of GDP. Returning visitors will be an important blow to cafes, restaurants and tour operators who have fought for survival for two years. But tourism has also caused tensions – locals have complained of overcrowding, rubbish, lack of investment in infrastructure to accommodate people and fears that the fragile natural environment is constantly being applied.
The era of Instagram and influential people can throw this dynamic into overload. Places moved at a rate of deformation from an “unknown gem” to an endlessly reproducible background, engulfed – and often threatened – by willing visitors.
“We want people to come to these incredible places. We want people to feel them. But we also want to make sure we protect them, ”Kiritapu said [Kiri] Alan, Minister of Nature Protection and Deputy Minister of Culture and Heritage. “And that we can pass it on to the next generation in a state that has not been completely destroyed by human footprints.”
Now the government wants to completely change the way tourism in the country. Last July, Stuart Nash, the tourism minister, promised that days of unlimited sightseeing buses would never return to Piopiotha. In addition, the site will be a “test” for the rest of the country, he said, as he tries to transform his tourism sector into a more sustainable, controlled operation that finances infrastructure in the host communities. In Milford, the proposals are significant: entry control, limiting the number, charging a standard infrastructure for visiting.
Alan said tensions in Milford are sharp, but it’s a national puzzle. “I see similar strains all over the rest of the country.”
In Te Anau, the nearest town of Milford, the lack of visitors during the pandemic led many businesses to the brink of collapse. About 85% of Piopiotahi visitors are from abroad, said Paul Norris, RealNZ’s chief environmental officer who conducts ferry tours in the sound. Their loss came as a huge economic shock. “It was a survival mode,” he said. “You can imagine there have been a lot of people who have left the tourism industry in the last two years.”
“I don’t think we need to go back to how it was. But, like everything, behind four or five words there are many layers of things that happened, ”he said. He added that many debates were dominated by the peak of the season, which is actually only a few weeks a year – more and more manageable in the winter months.
Muriel Johnston, elder of Ōraka Aparima Runaka, said the fjords were the “cradle of mythology” for the tribe – and their importance to the Maori was not reflected in the way they operated. “For years, mana whenua [those with traditional authority over the land] and others were concerned about the intensification of tourism, ”she said. “Huge uncontrollable growth … has reduced the sense of awe and hospitality that used to greet visitors.”
Mana whenua should be the basis of Piapiota’s new vision, she said, and it is Maori leaders like monoakitanga [hospitality]and kaitsikitanga, [stewardship of the natural world] that can steer it forward.
In the fjord pool the ferry makes a slow turn, returning to the harbor. The water stretches ahead, unbroken. “It’s about as good as it turns out,” one man said, standing by the railing. Dolphins swell after the water. As the boat approaches the huge waterfall, a boy stands on the bow, feeling the spray on his face. His father stands behind him and takes pictures. A little competition for the perfect shot.