The Commodification of Wild Places

Tourism and commercial enterprise have been part of New Zealand’s outdoors for at least the last century. The Milford Track spent much of its history as a relatively high grade tourist attraction. For a time it was largely exclusive, and that only changed after an act of civil disobedience which asserted the public right to explore a National Park. Closer to my own home, the popularly known Southern Crossing route across the Tararua Range had its modern beginnings with an intent to attract tourists to the region by creating a tramping route, and providing huts for accommodation.

DOC’s mandate recognises this. Section 6 of the Conservation Act, which defines DOC’s responsibilities, states that DOC should foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation, as long as it’s consistent with other requirements, and allow their use for tourism.

The distinction between recreation and tourism has become more important recently, though.

New Zealand’s conservation estate legislation evolved from a big domestic culture of conservation, volunteerism and recreation—not from one of marketing and tourism. NZ’s general system of free and open public access, and complete right to roam within parks, has come with culture of exploration and general personal skills and responsibility. Specific common routes exist but there’s also been an emphasis on exploring, especially with hunting communities and tramping clubs being a major component in NZ’s outdoor history. When tourism campaigns, such as Tourism NZ’s 100% Pure Brand, invited people to visit New Zealand because of its conservation estate, the back-country wasn’t well prepared for the flood of short term tourists from outside.

Great Walks, especially, have come under pressure from increased international tourism. Great Walks were conceived a few years after DOC’s formation in 1987. They were justified as being “to manage impacts on New Zealand’s most highly used tracks. With a projected large increase in visitor numbers to New Zealand’s parks and tracks it was important that such a system was put in place.” In other words, DOC looked at the places where lots of people were already wanting to visit. Great Walk status then let those specific tracks be managed in a more structured way so that the impact of so many visitors could be more appropriately managed. (I wrote about this a couple of years ago.)

It’s a combination of the structure, and the original reasons for the popularity of Great Walks, which make them of so much interest to international tourists. Being so highly managed, it’s easier for people with fewer skills and experience to have a great time. This is a worthy thing in terms of fostering recreation, which DOC’s required to do. For the same reasons, however, it’s also in the interests of the tourism industry to encourage visitors to try Great Walks. To an extent it’s even in DOC’s interests to try and channel large numbers of visitors to the most highly managed places so tourists are less likely to unpredictably flood over the landscape and cause problems in fragile parts of the eco-system which can’t cope with numbers.

Really, the de facto reason for Great Walks has become something very different from how and why they were originally conceived. Instead of being a mechanism to manage the impact of places which are popular, they’ve become a magnet for tourists. They’re a boon for nearby businesses because DOC focuses so much of its nationally sourced funding in Great Walk regions.

A consequence of this shift is that Great Walk status is now being sought by local regions specifically for the purpose of building economies, even though DOC has no mandate to favour local areas for their own local economic reasons. There’s no longer even an effort to hide this, either. In late 2015 when then Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith, announced the building of the Pike 29 track to become the first new Great Walk in decades, he specifically referred to economic benefits for the West Coast as a justification. I found that concerning at the time because it sets a precedent that’s consistent with regions arguing that DOC should be spending money in their area not because it’s the most effective Conservation budget spend, but because it benefits them over other regions.

In May 2017, the government announced a funding boost for Conservation and tourism infrastructure, including two new Great Walks. Part of this funding has been slated to go towards two new Great Walks, as well as 5 “Great Day Walks” and 14 “Great Short Walks”.

The September 2017 press release from then Minister Maggie Barry is depressingly commercial. The concept is being developed in partnership with Tourism New Zealand. It’s directly connecting itself to the “Great Walks Brand”. A specific justification is for communities to benefit from increasing visitor numbers. The list includes famous and popular tracks, but also includes those relatively unknown.

There’s also even more evidence emerging that local regions might try to take advantage of DOC’s precedent of it being acceptable to include local economic benefit, alongside efficient spending for its mandated conservation priorities. Notably, advocates in Kaikoura made no secret of wanting to attract DOC’s attention in order to help the local communities recover economically from earthquake impacts. I don’t think these communities should be abandoned, but if the government’s going to subsidise their recovery then I think it should be above board with proper dedicated funding. Maybe that even means upgrading and improving facilities on DOC-managed land, but I get concerned when I see what seems like political manipulation of DOC so that it spends its money in places which mightn’t be most efficient nor effective for its Conservation Act-mandated goals.

There’s some vague justification for creating new structured walks and then advertising them. For example, many of the existing targets of tourists are becoming overwhelmed by visitors. They simply cannot withstand the attention without environmental degradation, even with extensive management. With that starting point, creating new “attractions” that could soak up some of the tourists might help to spread the load.

I’m wary of getting very enthusiastic about this, though. Every one of these highly managed walks imposes more structure onto what was previously a more wild experience. For example, Great Walks have arbitrary legislated restrictions on camping, and usually require booking of all accommodation, making it considerably harder to simply turn up and explore on one’s own terms. I find myself agreeing with Federated Mountain Clubs who, in response to this, say “FMC believes that the outdoors should be discovered, not commodified” [Backcountry 210, November 2017, page 8].

I’m not sure what impact a new government, and a new conservation Minister, will have on this direction. I expect the current programme of two new Great Walks plus a bundle of other “Great” shorter walks will continue. They’ve already started, after all. In time, though, I hope we might be able to come up with a way to manage our conservation estate that effectively manages the impact of people who wish to visit it, but which doesn’t simply treat it as a commodity to be flogged off to tourists. It’s more meaningful than that.

Happy new year.

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