Queenstown, New Zealand is being loved to death by tourists
THIS small town in New Zealand is too beautiful for its own good. It’s been swamped by Australian tourists, and frankly, they’re ruining the place.
Murray Oldsnews.com.auMay 9, 201712:15pm
WE’D just arrived back in Queenstown after walking the Routeburn Track, deep in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island. We’d had the best possible time: Clear blue skies, crystal mountain streams, breathtaking scenery.
We were still on a high from the trek of a lifetime when my wife, son and I jumped into a taxi in the heart of Queenstown for the 10 minute ride to my sister’s home on the other side of Lake Wakatipu.
That great mood had evaporated when we arrived 50 minutes later, after an $84 dollar cab ride.
Our driver was apologetic but saw the funny side: “Just like Sydney, with all the traffic! And our real estate’s the same, too … million dollar houses all over the place.”
And that’s clearly the big problem facing the tiny town that can arguably lay claim to being the adventure capital of world tourism: It is being loved to death, a soaring popularity completely overwhelming the existing infrastructure, while local and national authorities play catch-up as they try to deliver upgrades to roads and other services to meet the booming demand.
Not so long ago, Queenstown was a winter town. The ski season was huge, but restaurants would close for a month or two in summer as owners carried out maintenance or took holidays themselves.
All that has changed. Queenstown now is a year-round town. Summer tourists are flying in for glorious bushwalks, or to throw themselves off tall bridges at the end of a bungee cord; if they survive that, there’s jet boating on the river below, or paragliding off nearby mountain peaks. New Zealand wines are known around the world.
The airport is humming. In 2005, 610,000 people travelled through Queenstown Airport. Last year, that figure had soared to 1.8 million, with Air New Zealand, Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin all jostling for space on the expanded runway.
Two out of every three visitors come from Australia, but the numbers from elsewhere are soaring. So great has been the growth, the airlines have been forced to introduce double shifts.
Here-in lies the problem.
The Lakes District Council says Queenstown is the fastest growing district in NZ. In 2015, Queenstown was home to about 30,000 people; next year, there’ll be 6,000 more. The population has almost doubled in less than 20 years, and it is expected to double again by 2028.
Cars choke the town centre, bringing traffic to a crawl. A new bridge over the Kawarau River, replacing the ancient one-lane structure, is taking forever. There’s limited cash in the kitty for road upgrades, so the council is working on a plan to provide a new bus service offering $2 tickets. But buses can go only so fast on already-congested roads.
Water quality is also a growing issue, with council working towards providing a permanently chlorinated drinking supply. Sewage treatment provides further challenges.
Tourists need places to stay so hotels are stretched, while rising rents and property prices are pushing locals out of the market. The average house price ticked past the million dollar mark last year.
There’s unprecedented growth in the number of applications for residential and commercial developments, but ski-field operators are begging homeowners to rent spare bedrooms to a worker this coming winter.
Mayor Jim Boult says purpose-built worker accommodation is the answer but developers won’t buy in. They’re too busy planning and building high-end hotels.
Dave Williams, the editor of the local Mountain Scene newspaper, blames years of poor planning and missed opportunities. He says there’s now a housing crisis in Queenstown, just as the council talks about setting up an accommodation task force to investigate ways to house visitors and workers who are arriving in ever-increasing numbers. “We need new infrastructure, but there’s limited local ability to pay for it”, he says.
The council is capping rate increases, but Williams is sceptical about other options suggested by locals.
How about a cap on visitor numbers? A fantasy, he says.
How about a visitor levy? A few extra dollars on an airline ticket could quickly generate hundreds of millions of dollars to put back into the local economy, but Williams doubts there’s any appetite in Wellington for a new tax specific to Queenstown.
As the council prepares for another booming winter, it is doing what it can.
It has deferred millions in planned spending, deciding instead to clean public toilets more often, and increase rubbish collection. But that’s unlikely to impress frustrated visitors if they’re spending two hours every afternoon trying to get off a local ski field into a town that is bursting at the seams.
Murray Olds is a presenter on Sydney’s 2UE. Follow him on Twitter @twomurrays