Tourism operators ‘disheartened’

Milford Opportunities Project governance group chair Dr Keith Turner.

A BOLD plan to manage the number of tourists visiting Milford Sound has been criticised by Queenstown tourism operators, the cruise ship industry, and fixed-wing operators.

The master plan for the Milford Opportunities Project was released to the public last week, at a presentation in Te Anau.

The reaction from locals was cautiously optimistic, but tourism operators further afield were not so happy.

The cruise ship industry says a plan to ban cruise ships from the sound could result in fewer visits to other stops in the south, including Dunedin.

Queenstown tourism operators said they would be hit hard by the closure of the airport, which would stop visits by fixed-wing aircraft.

Years in the making, the project was in response to concerns of rapidly growing visitor numbers in Milford Sound/Piopiotahi.

Numbers peaked at 870,000 visitors in 2019, up from 430,000 in 2013.

Southland District Mayor Gary Tong believed the most controversial points would be the aerodrome runway removal and cruise ship ban.

The airport at Milford Sound.

“That was the only time I heard any noise from the crowd.”

But he believed the plan was well received.

However, there was anger from beyond Te Anau.

Queenstown Milford Users Group chairman and Glenorchy Air owner James Stokes said the proposal to close the airport was a “kick in the guts” for tourism operators already hit hard by Covid-19.

This would have an immediate impact, not only on the many family run businesses in the region, but on tourism, too,

“For the businesses operating out of Queenstown, Wanaka and Te Anau, Milford Sound experiences make up more than 90% of their revenue.”

The group made its feelings known at a special meeting the project had with fixed-wing operators the next day.

Air Milford chief executive Hank Sproull said he left the meeting feeling “disheartened” and shaking his head.

Governance group chairman Dr Keith Turner said he understood the proposal to close the airstrip was controversial, but was not a lost opportunity for fixed-wing operators.

While helicopters would still be permitted at Milford, fixed-wing operators would be encouraged to use the Te Anau airstrip.

However, Mr Sproull said “everyone [at the meeting] was very disappointed at the pathetic proposal to remove the aerodrome”.

The effect on operators was not properly considered and the entire aviation group would take legal action if necessary, he said.

However, Dr Turner said it was not a loss but a change in opportunity for fixed-wing operators.

“The fixed-wing [operators] have already told us the in their trip is over the alps… We want them to continue that and fly around Mitre Peak, if that’s what their passengers want…

“We do think there is a fantastic airstrip at Te Anau and if their passengers want to link up with the park-and-ride and go up the corridor [to Milford by road]… that is even better.”

New Zealand Cruise Association chief executive Kevin O’Sullivan said cruise companies could abandon visiting Fiordland if the entry ban went ahead.

Losing such an “iconic destination” could also affect the viability of cruise ships visiting other New Zealand locations, including Dunedin, which were sold as being a gateway to Fiordland, he said.

Cruise ships only made a small impact on the sound and tended to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon, only staying for about an hour, he said.

Great South chief executive Graham Budd said those he had spoken to found the plan bold.

Some of the key proposals had been flagged in the past and so were not necessarily a surprise, he said.

He generally supported the cruise ship ban.

In regards to international visitors needing to pay for a permit, he did not think it would be a barrier.

While the plan was to build on the Southland visitor experience as a whole, it did not diminish the connection to Queenstown, he said.

Real Journeys general manager Paul Norris thought the announcement gave his company a chance to think about the effects for visitors and companies.

“There are things about it that are fantastic.”

There was a lot to take in and work through in the next few years, he said.

Dr Turner said the plan was not a wish list.

“There are 1600 pages of research and analysis and evidence and data to back it up.

“It’s a system, it’s not about any one silver bullet.”

When asked if he was confident everything announced yesterday would go ahead, he replied he did not hold the pen for legislative outcomes.

A recommendation to more evenly distribute numbers through a park-and-ride and permit system, with international tourists paying a fee for their permit, would provide funding to many other elements within the masterplan, he said.

Other recommendations included a combined visitor centre and park-and-ride base at Te Anau and another in Milford Sound Piopiotahi, along with new hotel and staff accommodation; creating more visitor opportunities near Te Anau (including both cycle ways and walking paths), in conjunction with the Fiordland Community Board; improved walking and some cycle tracks on the corridor; better walking and viewing opportunities at the sound, as well as improving the layout on the very limited flat area of Milford.