Government funding regional plans for sustainable tourism

Dozens of tourism operators already hurting from the impact of COVID are being asked to drastically shift the way they do business.

The Government is funding work on regional plans which look not only to make tourism sustainable, but to leave sites better than they were before tourists arrived.

Tourism leaders in the Southern Lakes have a lofty goal for the industry's future - making money from the landscape while simultaneously improving it.

A mountain biking park near Wanaka is already there. Sixty solar panels mean it operates off-grid and a percentage of revenue goes towards planting.

"The planting promise is one obvious thing we can do which is going to actually enhance the trail network because we're gonna get shade for the riders, increased birdlife, moisture to help bond the dirt which means better riding for the guests," says Bike Glendhu managing director Charlie Cochrane.

Tourist numbers have been flattened due to closed borders, but pre-COVID, the strain of over-tourism was evident.

"It's been a big economic drive but that's had obvious impacts on the environment, the social, the community side and the cultural aspects," says Paul Abbott, CEO of Destination Queenstown.

That prompted Government-funded work to rethink the sector enter "regenerative tourism".

"Our aim with this is to create a bit of a movement and commitment to doing things better as we start to recover post-pandemic," says Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) strategy and development manager Michelle Morss.

"The KPI will no longer be how many million people can we pump through here, it's what value do we get from those people that are coming through and what contribution are they making back into the community," Abbott adds.

But Abbott says it's not about cutting back tourist numbers, rather ensuring those who come contribute to the community and environment.

A sustainable tourism economy means the system remains in its current state indefinitely - so income levels, biodiversity and cultural values are sustained. In a regenerative tourism economy those things are improved.

But how do you do all that and maintain a healthy bottom line? Cochrane says it's not easy, but when visitors feel good about how their money is spent it translates to more business.

"I think that's the biggest challenge for us and all operators is to ensure that you can continue to be financially sustainable because you have to be, otherwise you can't invest in these types of things, but you gotta keep challenging yourself to focus on your vision."

Whether it's electric jet boats or improved public transport networks - everyone agrees the shift will take time but what they can't afford, is a return to the status quo.