Bold plan to re-shape Milford Sound

International visitors might have to pay more to visit South Island tourist mecca Milford Sound. David Williams reports.

Brace yourself. New Zealand’s biggest tourism drawcard, Piopiotahi/Milford Sound, the place most holidaying international tourists come to see, is set to be transformed by an ambitious plan that will land at the end of the year.

Keith Turner, perhaps best-known as the long-time chief executive of power giant Meridian Energy, is independent chairman of the Milford Opportunities Project, which is expected to report to the Government in November. Turner’s group – comprising two southern mayors, three government agencies, including the Department of Conservation (DOC), Ngāi Tahu and two tourism companies – was established in November 2017. Turner is seeking meetings with ministers and the political opposition in the coming months to get broad support for its draft masterplan.

Until the proposals get political endorsement – “I won’t say backing, I won’t say approval” – Turner is reluctant to release details of its 50-year vision. But strong themes emerge in his interview with Newsroom: that overseas tourists aren’t paying enough for a world-class experience, that the developed part of Milford is a bit shabby and congested, and too many tourists are bussing from Queenstown.

“I’d probably favour people starting their journey in there from Te Anau rather than from Queenstown, so that it removes that sense of rush. Because that seems to me entirely inconsistent with the experience of tranquility and pristine wilderness.”

Freeholding land is off the table – after all, Milford Sound is in Fiordland National Park with world heritage status. But he doesn’t rule out accommodation being built between Te Anau and Milford, or more creative ways to get tourists in there.

Ambitious plans require ambitious budgets, but Turner thinks taxpayers might be off the hook for most of it.

“I would imagine there’d be a lot of private sector interest in the sort of projects that might emerge from this, provided they can get a revenue stream from them. Like all tourist destination work, somebody’s got to be able to put up capital to earn an income.”

“If you go up the Hollyford Valley and the Eglinton Valley there would be 10 or 12 stops along the way, all of which are world-class experiences for tourists.” – Keith Turner

Turner compares Milford to India’s Taj Mahal or the Pyramids in Egypt. “That’s completely orchestrated. Your experience is curated from the moment you decide to go there until the moment you leave. We’ve been a bit ham-fisted about the way we’ve let tourism just grow without growing with it.”

Some tourists are paying between $200 and $300 for their Milford experience – often a round-trip bus trip from Queenstown and a short cruise. Compare that to the $US1500 tourists pay in Rwanda for a gorilla permit, in a careful example of conservation management.

“There’s a message in that for us, somewhere,” he says.

Turner has visions of a string of tourist experiences, with Milford Sound as the final stop. “If you go up the Hollyford Valley and the Eglinton Valley there would be 10 or 12 stops along the way, all of which are world-class experiences for tourists.”

Companies sell trips to Milford based on pristine, calm and tranquil images. But the reality, Turner says, is anything but. Between 11am and 3pm, there can be 70-80 buses and the wharf teeming with people waiting to board boats.

“And then quite often you’ll see a cruise liner sitting in the middle of the view and it’ll be spewing out blue smoke and if it’s calm it’ll be creating an inversion layer which you look at Mitre Peak through. The reality of what we are giving the tourists is very different to the image that we’re selling.”

There should be a “whole heap more protection” of the conservation estate, he says. “We think the tourist could fund a lot of that.”

(At one point, Turner likens Milford Sound to “major infrastructure” and laments the settlement’s lack of masterplanning. But he counters his own corporate, pro-development language with promises about the group’s strong environmental protection ethic. “If we don’t look after the environment, that will kill it.”)

A tourist mecca under pressure

The pressure on Milford Sound from tourism – some might say over-tourism – is well-known. But fresh details emerge from a series of briefings to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act.

Visitor numbers have roughly doubled in six years. About 850,000 visitors took a cruise in Milford Sound in 2017. On the current trajectory, numbers are expected to eclipse one million in 2019/20.

That’s creating huge headaches. There has been an increase in irresponsible freedom camping, rubbish dumping and what DOC calls “toileting issues”. A DOC memo to Sage, written in March last year, says: “The existing set-up is not able to cope with these visitor increases, which will lead to negative visitor experience and environmental consequences if not managed properly.”

The rise in self-drive tourism – heavily promoted overseas for years – means there aren’t enough car parks at Milford. About 35 percent of visitors arrive between 10am and 1pm, and stay for about three hours, leaving no parks for later arrivals. There also aren’t enough parks at Mirror Lakes, Key Summit Track, Gertrude Valley and Chasm Walkway.

Toilets along Milford Road aren’t coping and eight of the nine DOC campsites along the highway need urgent upgrades.

Nature and geography also throw up challenges. The 120km-long highway between Te Anau and Milford Sound is frequently closed in winter because of avalanche and rockfall risks. There are no alternative routes, no mobile phone coverage and no Wi-Fi.

DOC contemplates stepping in

Beyond the facts and figures in Sage’s briefings, there are hints of what’s to come.

Milford tourism companies are pushing to expand their operations, according to a briefing from February last year.

The cruise industry wants to add dinner and sunset cruises, and more land-based walks, to try to encourage tourists to stay longer in Milford. That’ll lead to more visitors and, inevitably, more pressure on the road and key infrastructure, such as the Homer Tunnel.

Another key driver for rising tourism to Milford is Queenstown Airport’s expansion and the rental car businesses there.

Not only is DOC bracing for an expected 5.1 million overseas tourists by 2024, New Zealand’s population is projected to hit 5.4 million by 2028.

Major changes will be needed if Milford is to cope, says a “talking points” memo prepared for Sage last August, ahead of a Radio NZ interview.

Echoing Turner’s thoughts about orchestration and curating visitor experiences, the memo says DOC wants to take a more strategic approach to visitor management to reduce pressure at key sites. That means taking a more “active” role in how, when and where visitors travel, and “ensuring a fair contribution from visitors and the tourism sector”.

Unfamiliar, controversial

Any changes suggested by Milford Opportunities will come on top of central Government policies, such as a border levy for most international tourists that will come into effect later this year, and higher prices on Great Walks for non-Kiwis.

Turner says it’s too soon to talk about particular initiatives being considered by his group. But he admits that limiting visitor numbers is being contemplated and it’s likely the “right” of New Zealanders to visit on the cheap will be protected.

Newsroom asks if accommodation might spring up between Te Anau and Milford, not unlike a private lodge proposal for the Eglinton Valley being considered by DOC.

“I suspect that you’re right,” Turner says. “I suspect there will be opportunities to increase the staging of access. But, again, that’s a pretty big question for DOC.”

In a simplistic way, projects arising from the Milford masterplan will try to make tourists stay longer and spend more, while spreading the day-time peak more evenly.

These themes have been discussed at a national level for years. But in Milford Sound, it’s hard to see that happening without drastic intervention – which seems to be what Turner’s group is contemplating.

“There’s a big debate to be had here. Some of it won’t be familiar territory for many people and some of it may be quite controversial.”

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