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Q&A: Harmonising sustainability with tourism to protect Milford Sound Piopiotahi

August 06, 2021

A newly released masterplan can not only protect one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most precious assets but act as a blueprint for tourism more broadly

What does post-pandemic tourism in Aotearoa New Zealand look like? Since the COVID-19 virus swept across the globe tourism has been challenging to navigate and plan for. The industry’s had to become increasingly flexible in its approach to activity offerings and business decisions to keep resilient and viable.

Stantec, alongside Boffa Miskell and a diverse team of specialist sub-consultants, worked together for the Milford Opportunities Project (MOP) to produce a newly released Milford Sound Piopiotahi masterplan. We talk to MOP partner and tourism specialist Craig Jones of Visitor Solutions about the masterplan’s ability to address the region’s opportunities and challenges as well as influence the future of tourism in New Zealand.

Milford Sound Piopiotahi has always been an iconic destination for New Zealand and overseas visitors. What can you tell us about the background of tourism in Te Anau and Piopiotahi?

Piopiotahi has been an iconic New Zealand destination for many years. In the late 1800s the Milford track was cut between Te Anau and Piopiotahi and a boarding house was established a short time later to cater for visitors. In the 1930s a road was progressed from Te Anau, but it was not until the Homer Tunnel was completed in 1956 that a road link enabled greater visitation. Te Anau has always been the original gateway to Milford Sound Piopiotahi.

Where are some of the biggest challenges in tourism in this region that led to the need for the masterplan?

It was becoming increasingly clear that the region’s tourism sector was coming under pressure. By 2019 visitor numbers to Piopiotahi had dramatically increased to circa 900,000. Many of these visitors were making day trips from Queenstown, in essence rushing in and out of Piopiotahi, mostly between 12 and 2pm. The main road in was becoming increasingly dangerous, crowding was occurring, the built infrastructure was deteriorating, the visitor experience was showing signs of declining and there was a clear lack of holistic planning. If the sector continued along its pre COVID trajectory it could have been very destructive on the natural environment and the quality of the visitors’ experience. 

The newly released masterplan was the result of a diverse consultant group, led by Stantec, joining forces to produce unique and inventive solutions to reimagine tourism in Milford Sound Piopiotahi, Te Anau, and the wider Southland Murihiku area. How did you identify, distil, and agree on the opportunities for tourism in the masterplan?

The process that we implemented was very consultative. We began by talking with the host community and the tourism sector and then undertaking a great deal of research. We structured a range of potential opportunities that were then thoroughly evaluated by our diverse consultant team. We worked closely with the project’s governance and working groups to test and agree a shortlist of opportunities that appeared in the plan. We were always aware that some of the opportunities would be challenging.

A key emphasis in the masterplan is sustainability for future generations.  What does this mean for the future for tourism in this region?

For many in the industry it will mean change. Some of this change will be hard in the short to medium term because we are not advocating a ‘business as usual’ approach. By making these system-wide changes we are placing the region’s tourism sector into the best possible long-term position. I see huge potential for those individuals and businesses that can see the emerging opportunities.

By making these system-wide changes we are placing the region’s tourism sector into the best possible long-term position.

Now that the masterplan has been released and funding has been announced, where to from here?

Phase three of the Milford Opportunities Project is being established now. This will involve a far more detailed examination of the components within the plan. In particular feasibility and business case assessments of the different opportunities, and additional wide-ranging consultation with stakeholders and the community.

What lessons do you think this work has for the future of tourism across Aotearoa?

I think in the past as a sector we have not always been prepared to make the hard calls on system wide change. We have tweaked things around the edges and at times not wanted to challenge a business-as-usual approach. This plan was not afraid to make the necessary yet hard calls, and I would like to think it will challenge other regions and sectors within the industry to do the same. The Milford Opportunities Project model could be very useful blueprint for other regions.

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