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100% Pure Crowds: Is over-tourism ruining New Zealand's gems?

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

Opinion article written by Brook Sabin, Stuff Travel Journalist

Republished from

OPINION: I'm at Hot Water Beach, in the heart of the Coromandel. This is what I dreamt of: a quiet little space to dig my own hot pool, wrinkling away to my heart's content. Eventually, I'd fall asleep to the lapping waves.

But what I've turned up to looks like a scene from a wartime beach landing - minus the weapons. Dozens of people are all concentrated on a little spot on the beach, where the hot water bubbles up. Sand is flying everywhere; some are digging halfway to Mexico to find their bounty - because what the brochures don't tell you is there's hardly any hot water. Getting your derriere covered in hot water involves a lot of shovelling.

There are screaming kids surround me, I have sand in my mouth from being caught in the crossfire, and I'm experiencing about as much bliss as taking a nap on the side of a motorway.

It's nothing more than 100% Pure Hell.

Travelling around our beautiful country, I see a bit of a theme developing: Kiwis are starting to get wary of over-tourism.

I would argue we're a long way from peak tourism. In Europe, beaches are so full that finding a free patch big enough for a towel can be impossible. Back here, it's still easy to find a relatively empty beach, even in peak summer months.

However, there is little doubt the well-worn tourist trail is becoming strained. Any story I do that mentions Queenstown always has a chorus of comments lamenting the city is too expensive.

Infrastructure is also inadequate; for every local ratepayer in Queenstown, there are 35 visitors a year. With such demand, prices are creeping up and forcing out Kiwis who can't compete with the deep pockets of some tourists.

The council has even recently voted to reject Queenstown Airport's growth plans, reflecting growing discontent about over-tourism.

Elsewhere around the country, the rap sheet of overcrowded spots doesn't make for great reading.

Roys Peak, overlooking Lake Wānaka, often has queues that would rival an amusement park - with tourists lining up to take their photos of empty wilderness - while awkwardly being watched by dozens of people.

Coromandel's Cathedral Cove, where hundreds of tourists can be found in the summer months, often has the romance of a visit to a shopping mall.

Visitors to Rotorua's Kerosene Creek, a natural hot spring river, complain of rubbish and overcrowding. "This natural beauty is over-used. There was rubbish lying piled up, and there is a 'toilet'. This toilet is literally a container. Absolutely disgusting and not acceptable for an area that is so busy. The creek although lovely, was polluted (the same type of disgusting foamy pollution you get in the ocean). What a shame this place has just become over-used and filthy," according to a UK tourist who left a review on TripAdvisor.

Northland's Mermaid Pools - a series of naturally formed rock pools near Matapouri - is currently closed after sunscreen and urine caused damage to the delicate eco-system.

Franz Josef glacier is a mystical place - until you realise it's also home to the busiest heliport in New Zealand. Viewing the glacier is accompanied by an almost constant thud of helicopters ferrying passengers around the Southern Alps. Incredibly, during the busy summer months, there can be one helicopter takeoff or landing every minute in Franz Josef.

A visit to Kawakawa's Hundertwasser toilets is often comical, if not disturbing. I love the artist, but this is a toilet - I repeat - a functioning toilet. I've lost count of the times I've been using the facilities alongside a bunch of snap-happy tourists, who must think I'm part of the act. Hopefully, the new Hundertwasser Gallery in Whangarēi will divert some of these over-enthusiastic lavatory lovers.

The Government is tacitly acknowledging the issue, with a $35 levy imposed for most foreign visitors - which started in July. The money will apparently be used "to make sure that New Zealander's lives are enriched by sustainable tourism growth." It has a long way to go; I think many Kiwis are feeling frustration rather than enrichment.

Don't get me wrong, tourists pump crucial money into our economy - but we're currently walking a tightrope, over a valley called greed. New Zealand could quickly become known as an expensive overcrowded little bunch of islands at the bottom of the world that's not worth the trip. And that benefits nobody.


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