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Wednesday Letter: How tourism can give back to nature

9 Feb 2022  By Contributor

Jobs for Nature, Predator Free 2050 and fostering regenerative tourism will help the sector get through Covid to a better future, writes the Department of Conservation’s new director-general Penny Nelson.

Penny Nelson

I feel incredibly privileged to be in, what is essentially, my dream role as the Department of Conservation’s director-general. It follows a lifetime love of science and nature.

When I met my husband Pete 30 years ago, he worked for DOC catching mice on Mana Island. Our first son Sam was born while we lived on Kapiti Island – I will never forget taking him home for the first time on the DOC boat surrounded by dolphins.

Born in Canterbury, my childhood was spent around the South Island. My father worked in the primary sector and my mother was a teacher. We were brought up with a strong sense of public service, valuing people who work on and care for the land and a love of the outdoors.

The journey to DOC D-G has been via an eclectic and rich career working across the public service, with business and in the science sector at Maanaki Whenua. The common thread throughout my career is working with diverse groups of people to clarify strategy and turn it into on-the-ground results.

For DOC’s visitor work, this means understanding and delivering on tourism and recreation’s important contribution to the health of New Zealand’s people and environment – in line with our Heritage and Visitor Strategy. It means strategically and deliberately building on work with mana whenua, communities and others to foster New Zealanders’ love of the outdoors and appreciation of nature and heritage.

Getting people into nature is vital for them to understand its value (for their own wellbeing and the planet’s) and take action for its protection and restoration.

New Zealand has unique biodiversity that you don’t find anywhere else on the planet. If we lose it, it’s gone for good. It matters for our economy, which is based on ecosystem services from nature – soil, clean water and climate regulation and our identity as New Zealanders. I’ll be guiding DOC to deliver a recreation network that celebrates and contributes to the health and protection of biodiversity.

On top of around 1000 huts, 300 campsites and more than 14,000km of walking tracks, DOC is also responsible for the largest cultural heritage portfolio in the country, containing more than 16,000 known archaeological and historic sites.

The stories and visible traces of what went before are key to building deeper connection to species and places. I’ll be looking at how we can better share the stories that shaped Aotearoa New Zealand and encouraging more people to understand and enjoy important heritage sites such as Tohu Whenua or Icon Sites.

Both tourism and conservation are undergoing extraordinary and trying times globally. It’s more important than ever before that we safeguard and grow thriving natural ecosystems.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how DOC needs to be able to quickly adapt to fluctuating numbers and visitor patterns. The silver lining for DOC has been seeing so many New Zealanders enjoying nature and making the most of their world-class recreation network. For example, DOC booking data shows 75% more New Zealanders undertook a Great Walk between 1 December 2020 to 28 February 2021 compared to the previous year. I am eager to see how this summer compares and how we can foster this increased connection to the outdoors for years to come.

In responding to the Covid crisis and supporting recovery, there is an opportunity to reimagine a better future. Two game changers in this space are Predator Free 2050 and Jobs for Nature/Mahi mō te Taiao, both designed to support communities and turn the health of Aotearoa around.

DOC was allocated $488m through the Government’s Jobs for Nature programme to provide nature-based employment to communities and industries, such as tourism and hospitality, hit hard by the pandemic.

Tourism workers have been able to supplement their primary job and allowed tourism businesses to retain staff despite reduced demand. The programme has also provided security to people and their families, who would have had to relocate from areas where work was scarce. In addition, tourism workers developed knowledge about Tikanga Māori and conservation, which will enrich their work when the border reopens. All while investing in the landscapes, culture and wildlife that attract people to visit New Zealand.

Predator Free 2050 is the ambitious goal to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten our nation’s natural taonga. It brings together those who envision a flourishing Aotearoa with abundant native wildlife and forests. It also has flow-on benefits for the economy and primary sectors.

This nationwide movement already has more than 5000 groups and iwi and 13 landscape partnerships. As more people and resources are mobilised, and new tools and technologies developed, eradication across the country will accelerate towards a predator-free Aotearoa by 2050.

In the long-term, DOC is working to shift to a regenerative tourism system that has the wellbeing of whanau, hapū and iwi, communities and the environment at its heart. It’s exemplified by a place close to my heart. On Kapiti Island visitors not only experience New Zealand nature up close, but they learn about the extraordinary conservation efforts of DOC, mana whenua and conservation groups. Both operators providing tours to the island are active contributors to predator control and restoration, demonstrating how tourism can give back to ecosystems and provide an important avenue for reconnecting our people with nature.

Regenerative tourism ensures stakeholders in tourism work with nature to enhance its capability to thrive and evolve naturally. It’s heartening to see so many in the industry already working towards the same goals.


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