After two years, New Zealand has fully reopened its borders to international visitors.
On Monday, the small island nation lifted its latest visitor restrictions, opening its doors to sea arrivals, foreign students on study visas and tourists from visa-free countries such as China and India.
All arrivals will need to be double vaccinated – but will not face a quarantine period on arrival. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it a “tremendous moment”.
But as it opens up, New Zealand – world-renowned for its pristine natural landscape – has a message for visitors.
“The future will not look like the past.”
These are the words of Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA) CEO Rebecca Ingram. But they encapsulate a shift – towards regenerative, sustainable travel – that is being embraced across the industry.
Why is New Zealand so popular with tourists?
Before the pandemic, New Zealand (also known by its Maori name, Aotearoa) was a global tourist hotspot.
Between 2016 and 2019, approximately 11 million the visitors descended on the island nation, which boasts a permanent population of just 5 million people.
In the picturesque Milford Sound, Piopiotahi, cruise ship visits have almost quadrupled in 13 years, reaching a peak of 133 in 2019.
In 2020, annual visitors to the Sound are projected to exceed one million.
Towering waterfallsrugged beaches and snow capped mountains – everyone rose from the visitors.
Then the pandemic hit and the country locked its borders.
Amid huge economic pain – the average travel business cut 40 per cent of staff and saw revenue halve in the year to May 2021, TIA research revealed – there was room for reflection.
How has the pandemic changed tourism in New Zealand?
For two years, cruise ships unloading their passengers in port towns and tourists rushing around the South Island were a distant memory. Some communities liked it that way.
“As an industry, we listened to the concerns that some communities had before the pandemic about the growth of tourism and how it was affecting their lifestyles and the environment,” says Rebecca Ingram.
“Changes have been made to ensure the tourism experience in New Zealand is one New Zealanders can be proud of.”
The government passed new restrictive laws “camping freedom”. While local communities have written destination management plans to protect themselves from “**overcrowding** and the negative effects of tourism.”
At the oversubscribed Milford Piopiotahi, proposals include capping daily admissions at 4,000 and introducing a charge for international visitors.
“The last two years have given us an opportunity to think about how we can manage our tourism industry better,” says Ingram.
Individual travel companies also seek to “green” their own operations, with 1,600 signing the TIA “sustainability pledge”.
Carino Wildlife Tours in the beautiful Bay of Islands is one such operator.
The tour doubles as a “citizen science” project, explains Carino managing director Vanessa McKay. Each cruise collects data on penguin, shark, stingray and dolphin numbers.
“It’s about enjoying entertainment and then adding to it. Visitors are marine kaitiaki (guardians). We let them take it property“, she explains.
“It’s about making a place better than you found it. This is for the next generation. It’s really about the kids.”
Wildwire Wanaka is another business that gives back.
The attraction – the world’s tallest waterfall climb – wants to go carbon positive, director Mark Morrison says.
“Our vision is to be completely regenerative,” he says.
“Whenever we have guests, we want them to give back to us through conservation…Whether it’s checking traps in an effort to bring birds back to the area or carrying seeds on the trip that guests use to plant more trees .”
“Our goal is to get to the point where the community sees tourists and is excited that they’re here because they know they’re giving back to the community.”
What is the Tiaki Promise?
The pandemic has accelerated the embrace of sustainability – but Aotearoa has long been a world leader in regenerative tourism.
From 2019, international visitors to national parks had to pay a fee of NZ$35 (€21.50).
However, the change is also psychological. In 2018, Tourism New Zealand launched the Tiaki Promise. Tiaki means “care” in te reo Māori.
“While in New Zealand, I will care for the land, sea and nature by treading lightly and leaving no trace,” reads the pledge visitors are encouraged to take.
Recommendations include excavation The drones and be careful not to spread pests which threaten the nation’s unique biodiversity.
The pledge is inspired by the rich Maori tradition of respect and reciprocity for the natural landscape, explains Oscar Nathan, General Manager of Tourism Bay of Plenty.
“The concept of regeneration is not new, it is based on the idea that everyone is connected to the environment and should respect it – a belief embedded in Te Ao Māori (the Māori world).
As the first international visitors in two years land in New Zealand, the beleaguered tourism industry will welcome them with open arms. But they will also ask them to tread lightly.