Stewart Islanders work to develop plans for community's future

Stewart Islanders are being encouraged to develop a plan for the community's future.

New Zealand's third-largest island is battling an ageing and declining population, but a growing tourism industry is helping turn things around.

Many tourists have come from all over the world to experience a unique destination many Kiwis have never even set foot on.

Locals describe Stewart Island as like New Zealand "used to be" and visitors come to explore its relatively untouched natural beauty.

Tourism has overtaken fishing as the main source of income for the island's residents.

The local oyster farming industry was wiped out after the parasite bonamia ostreae was detected in Big Glory Bay.

MPI ordered a cull of all flat oysters to prevent the parasite spreading to the wild fisheries, but that also forced many mussel farms to be pulled up.

"It was a nasty shock and there's still probably a lot of bitterness with the way it was handled," says Stewart Island Community Board chairman Jon Spraggon.

"But the community's bound back together and moving forward."

The Southland District Council is now developing a plan to help the community bounce back and identify future opportunities.

The big increase in tourists has had a positive spinoff. Every person who comes pays a $5 visitor levy, helping fund infrastructure, which the island's 380 permanent residents couldn't afford themselves. That money goes towards projects that benefit tourists, including building walking tracks and footpaths and maintaining the wharves.

"We look upon the wharves as being our roads over here, and they're in a very, very poor state," says Mr Spraggon.

A high profile campaign in 2015 to attract new families to the island proved a success. It helped Halfmoon Bay School save its junior teacher, and principal Kath Johnson says the roll will soon hit the mid-30s.

"So that's the highest it's been probably since the early-mid 1980s - three teachers, three classrooms, pretty exciting."

Meanwhile a push to make Stewart Island a "dark skies" destination could help boost off-season tourism and give visitors another reason to check out this southern scenic spot.