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Paul Button: The business of conservation in tourism

17 Sep 2019  By Contributor

Paul Button

In our week-long special marking the 50th anniversary of Conservation Week, Rotorua Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button writes about the benefits of integrating conservation into tourism businesses and why New Zealand can lead the way.

New Zealand’s unique environment has been enjoyed as an adventure playground by visitors from both home and abroad, with recent years seeing a shift towards a strong focus on protecting and preserving that same environment by the tourism industry.

Our industry is one that has made the most of the natural delights found in the wild in New Zealand. We have walking tours across mountains, surf beaches galore, kayaking with dolphins, skiing across alpine ranges, bungy jumps into pristine lakes, and tours through ancient untouched forests. We guide our visitors with expertise and a sense of pride over the beauty of these landscapes. It is a privilege to share these spaces with our guests.

But of course, over-tourism is a growing concern globally and we haven’t escaped that here in New Zealand either. From rāhui being placed on sacred places over-visited to nation-wide manhunts for ‘unruly tourists’ who dumped rubbish on a popular beach, we too have seen the ugly side of tourism.

A positive that has risen out of over-tourism is that people are increasingly aware of the occasionally negative impacts that tourism has on our natural environment. Tourism agencies, operators, and tourists themselves are all becoming more conscious of the mark that travel can leave. After all, tidy kiwis only leave footprints, right?

For purely philanthropic purposes, integrating conservation into tourism businesses is the right thing to do. If we’re willing to trek visitors around our natural landscapes, we must also be willing to make sure that that same landscape is well looked after and protected. If we’re willing to practice manaakitanga we too have to practice kaitiakitanga. But there are also business benefits in being an eco-friendly tourism operator. released survey findings earlier this year that shows that nearly three-quarters of travellers are opting to choose more sustainable tourism and travel options. At Canopy Tours alone we’ve seen sharp increases in booking numbers and revenue in the last year since we’ve invested in sharing more about our conservation initiatives. Anecdotally, other sustainable tourism operators we’ve been in touch with have seen the same trend.

We’re taking this to mean that even as the tourism growth slows nationally, sustainable and conservation-led tourism initiatives continue to climb. This is not only positive for the environment but for our industry as a whole as it demonstrates a positive way to help increase visitor numbers sustainably – in both senses of the word.

We know we are not alone in this focus on conservation in tourism. More than 1,000 companies in New Zealand have signed the Tourism Industry Aotearoa’s Sustainability Commitment, which is a further indication of our industry’s interest in eco-tourism practices. Combined with Tourism New Zealand’s Tiaki Promise, which encourages travellers to act as guardians of Aotearoa, we’re in a strong position for both guests and operators to be focused on how travel impacts the environment.

This crossover between conservation, sustainability and tourism has hugely promising impacts for tourism businesses. People are becoming increasingly conscious about how their holiday choices impact the environment and this ties in nicely with New Zealand’s shift towards value rather than volume tourism growth goals.

To put it bluntly, it’s important to have more high-value tourists visiting our natural attractions than it is to have high volume numbers of tourists visiting our natural attractions. Our visitor spending is up, even though the visitor numbers have dropped. This is positive for our environment – we don’t want to be in a position where over-tourism leads to countless rāhui placed on our natural sacred spaces.

Tourism businesses need to understand how conservation and tourism intersect, and what it can mean for their business. As travellers are increasingly conscious of how their travel choices impact the environment, hopefully, they are increasingly conscious of the costs involved with participating in sustainable, high-value tourism activities.

As an industry, let’s continue to lead the way globally in demonstrating the importance and success of high value, sustainable tourism practices. We’re lucky enough to have one of the best natural playgrounds in the world, and if we manage it right, we can keep it that way.


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