Fresh vision for Milford Sound, but cruise ship ban goes too far
The Milford Sound visitors centre as envisioned in the Milford Opportunities Project Masterplan.
OPINION: It’s the crowning jewel in our conservation estate, a soaring taonga within the treasury of our national parks.
But Milford Sound’s reverential pulling power has rightly prompted a comprehensive reset on how we safeguard the World Heritage-listed destination’s integrity, by charting a more sustainable path for its future tourism management.
Four years in the making, the government-funded Milford Opportunities Project Masterplan lays out a fresh vision for the stewardship of Milford Sound and State Highway 94, which was bursting at the seams.
In 2013, Milford Sound attracted 430,000 visitors. In 2019, that had more than doubled to 870,000. One of the silver linings to the Covid-19 pandemic is the unmistakable pause to ‘business as usual’, providing a prime opportunity to reposition our iconic tourism assets onto a far more viable, enduring footing.
* Operators vow to fight plan to ban fixed-wing planes from Milford Sound
* Plan to scrap Milford Sound airstrip meets with strong opposition
* Taming the crowds: rethinking the tourism future of Milford Sound/Piopiotahi
* Ambitious changes planned for Milford Sound
$15 million of taxpayer funding will now be allocated to breathing life into last week’s masterplan. Public consultation will feed into the detailed design development plan, laying out the operational changes and future visitor experience at the site.
The bulk of the proposals have been met with emphatic support, aside from some notable exceptions. I’m particularly excited by the plans to enhance the variety of experiences at Milford Sound, including a Bowen Falls cable car and additional walking tracks like the Barren Peak Spur treetop lookout.
The Milford Opportunities master plan aims to restore the essence of the Milford Road corridor.
But banning cruise ships from Milford’s inner sound strikes me as needlessly zealous and prohibitive, given the very limited hours that cruise ships customarily spend in the sound. Pre-Covid, the ships typically cruised Milford Sound before 9am or after 5pm, well outside the prime hours of the daily tourist trade.
Environment Southland has adeptly controlled cruise ship movements in Fiordland for years. In 2019/20, the regional council happily amassed $2.8m in marine fees revenue from the cruise industry.
Targeting the cruise ships looks like an “easy get”, a cynical target, particularly given the danger that such a ban would deter many cruise lines from bothering to keep much of the South Island on their Australasian circuits.
Typically, that circuit sees the ships call into Christchurch, Dunedin and Fiordland, before crossing the Tasman. All of those port calls would be jeopardised if the plug was pulled on Milford.
Another flashpoint is the Operators vow to fight plan to ban fixed-wing planes from Milford Sound
“>proposed disestablishment of the Milford Sound runway. A heliport would remain, but there would be a blanket ban on fixed-wing aircraft landing at Milford. Understandably, many aircraft operators, like Air Milford and Glenorchy Air are seething, but flight-seeing operations across Milford Sound and Mitre Peak would still be able to operate from Te Anau, Queenstown and Glenorchy.
I’m particularly impressed by the masterplan’s determination to elevate Te Anau’s stature as a major tourism hub. It is beyond ridiculous that so much of Milford Sound’s tourist trade has increasingly been derived from Queenstown day-trippers, frantically speed-dating Fiordland, on a stir crazy nine-hour return road journey from the shores of Lake Wakatipu.
It’s bad enough that many self-driving tourists undertake this fleeting fling with Fiordland from Queenstown, but the fact that so many Queenstown-based coach tour operators have binged on this unedifying day-return stampede is inexcusable. This expedient juggernaut of grand-scale greed must be tackled because it grossly sells Fiordland short.
Te Anau is the rightful gateway to Fiordland’s many glories and post-Covid, the lakeside tourist town deserves to be treated accordingly. The masterplan sensibly proposes establishing the transport interchange in Te Anau, whereby international visitors would pay an entry fee to access the Milford Highway and Milford Sound via a hop-on/hop-off bus system.
Private vehicle access would be restricted to Kiwis through a permit parking system, which is entirely reasonable.
The Milford Sound masterplan is clearly a test-case for other precious New Zealand destinations that have been groaning under the weight of surging visitation over the past decade. Just look at Aoraki/ Mt. Cook National Park, which exceeded a million visitors in 2019.
New Zealanders rightly consider free access to our conservation jewels as a birthright, but it’s not grasping to expect international visitors to pay an entry fee to enjoy wilderness experiences in our premium national parks.
Self-funded, sustainable visitor experiences are the face of tomorrow’s tourism. High-value international visitors will happily pay to play.