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We’ve never been so popular. Talk show hosts, royalty and 4 million visitors are beating a path to New Zealand. Frank Film asks how many tourists are too many tourists?

By 2025 it’s estimated there will be as many people visiting New Zealand as those who live here.
In the last year alone, the number of international tourists has jumped to 3.9 million.

Now, the latest episode in Frank Film’s Changing South series asks how many tourists are too many tourists?

It’s a delicate debate, with tourism having surpassed dairy as our biggest export earner, amassing 21% of foreign exchange earnings. On average, international visitors spend a whopping $44 million a day here.

The majority of our international visitors travel the least distance, across the Tasman. Australians make up 39% of visitor arrivals, ahead of China (12%) and the USA (9%).

James Higham, Professor of Tourism at the University of Otago, says “historically we've had a focus on tourist maximisation based on visitor numbers and contribution to the economy,” but cautions that “questions are now being asked about the capacity to receive and accommodate increasing numbers of tourists.”

Questions relating mainly to tourism’s impact on the New Zealand environment, on which there are few studies. Frank Film understands that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, is set to release a report on the environmental impact of tourism in the coming months.

Of growing concern globally is the high environmental cost of getting to New Zealand, with a return flight from London to Auckland carrying a carbon footprint of around 7000 kilograms, equivalent to a petrol-powered car travelling 40,000 kilometres according to Enviro-Mark Solutions’ online emissions calculator.

The growing awareness of aviation emissions is resulting in ‘flight shaming’, especially in Europe.

“Six weeks ago a German newspaper published an article discouraging German tourists from travelling so far to their chosen destinations,” reveals James Higham. “The feature, comparative image was Milford Sound and the article highlighted fjords in Norway that could be visited by German tourists at a far lower environmental cost.”

Tourists approached by Frank Film on the streets of Christchurch were all aware of the issue but in the words of one visitor from France “if you want to come here, you don’t really have a choice.”

Professor Higham warns that tourism can create social pressures too, with small towns having to fund facilities from a small ratepayer base.

An international visitor levy of $35 was introduced this year by the government but Professor Higham says we could go further. He believes the National Parks Act, drawn up in 1952, should be amended to include a charge for tourists.
“Now, with five million New Zealanders and four million visitors you need to question whether free access to the national parks is still viable.”

Professor Higham says the issues are pressing and local communities need to be involved in any discussions on what the future of tourism might look like in New Zealand.