Managing Southland’s tourism boom

Venture Southland group manager for community, tourism, and events Bobbi Brown said this year's high season had seen a lot more locals and independent travellers choosing to camp thanks to the nice weather, with areas such as the Catlins being a hit. PHOT

Southland tourism is entering a new age, where the question that's being asked isn't just on how the region can attract tourists, but also how the boom can best be managed.

Two new large initiatives are aiming to start tackling the big questions this year, while regional hot spots like Milford Sound and Curio Bay are putting in major investments to front-foot demand as well.

Venture Southland group manager for community, tourism, and events Bobbi Brown said work on a new regional tourism strategy would kick off in the next few weeks, one of the big projects to come out of the Southland Regional Development Strategy (SoRDS). However the end goal for this tourism strategy was taking on a different perspective from the last one.

"It's not just about attracting people here, it's actually how we manage the destination once they get here. That's why we're calling it a destination management plan."

Linking Fiordland with the rest of Southland, ensuring good emergency management services, seeing where the tourists were going, and if those destinations had the right infrastructure like toilets and roads to handle them, were some of the questions Mrs Brown said the strategy would look at. 

But it wasn't just the visitor-side of the equation that would be looked at, but also how Southland's economy could most benefit from the huge potential of the tourism industry.

"The biggest part of it is understanding what we need done, how it's working for our operators, for our communities, for our councils, and then saying, 'Are we managing it right?' Sort of linking it together, so there will be a lot of consultation involved."

The Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) was partnering with Venture Southland on the project, and a group of industry representatives would be set up to help steer it, she said.

Mrs Brown said the regional strategy would go hand-in-hand with the Milford Opportunities Project, which had its first governance group meeting in November and was also supported by MBIE. 

Milford Opportunities Project chairman Keith Turner said growth in the Queenstown/Milford/Southland region was outpacing the national average. 

"The Milford Opportunities exercise is a collection of councils and government organisations all of whom realise that we cannot keep loading up the road to Milford or the Milford destination, and expect to maintain its iconic status."

The project was all about looking at the the way in which Milford could service tourists and provide them with a high quality experience, as well as future-proofing the destination, Mr Turner said.

"And when you look at the broader Southland area, there are also high quality destinations that would benefit to spread the load in the tourism activity."

Still in its infancy, he said the group would be meeting a couple of times in the next few weeks to bring on a project manager and begin gathering tourism data before making infrastructure recommendations.

In the meantime, popular destinations have long been hard at work addressing their own immediate infrastructure needs. Over the last year Curio Bay has been crossing off multiple upgrades on its to-do list, with the latest being the recently opened Curio Bay Tumu Toka Heritage Centre. Mrs Brown said having an indoor destination, like the heritage centre, was a strategic move to give tourists more options regardless of the weather. 

"It's been really pleasing to see how the infrastructure seems to be doing the trick. Because in the past, the problems with places like the Catlins is that people are attracted to them, but they're not really made for lots of people. 

"But what we're seeing is that, for example, there's toilets and [a] car park at Curio Bay, and while it's full and getting well used, it's actually taking off the pressure off other areas in the Catlins."

And of course in Milford Sound, plenty has been in the works to front-foot demands along the road and its end destination.

Milford Road Alliance manager Kevin Thompson said prior to Christmas the Hollyford road to Lake Marian, an increasingly popular day hike, was sealed. Over the winter a new building near the Homer Tunnel would be replacing what was known as "the Chapel" to better house its electronic monitoring systems and camera network, as well as house its avalanche team in the winter and the tunnel operations team throughout the year.

"Our team is growing in terms of numbers to deal with the growing numbers of people on the route as well," he said.

Both the Alliance and Milford Sound Tourism were working together to put in more informative signage leading into the fiord as well, he said.

Milford Sound Tourism general manager Tim Holland said a recently installed car park sensor system at Milford Sound — used to indicate how full each park was — was working well, and a upgrade at the Knob's Flat wastewater treatment plant got approved for co-funding from the Tourism Infrastructure Fund just a couple of weeks ago. 

The area's overall infrastructure was coping very well with the high season numbers, but the trick was to always stay ahead of it, he said. 

"If nobody ever mentioned our infrastructure, we're happy. If people mentioned it, they've noticed it. The whole idea is that it becomes a minor part of the experience for people and Milford... is to the fore. We want all the rest of that to be really a non-event."


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