The United Nations is backing a local group to look at the sustainability of New Zealand’s billion-dollar tourism industry.
Led by professors and students from Waikato University’s management school, the observatory will be the first of its kind in the country.
But they’re starting small and focusing on tourism hot-spots in Raglan and Waitomo.
With Raglan’s world-famous left-hand surf point break and Waitomo’s limestone glowworm caves, the two rural towns bring in nearly 400,000 tourists a year.
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“At the moment, tourism is a key growth industry in New Zealand and produces an estimated $1.28 billion for the Waikato region each year,” Professor Asad Mohsin said.
“Now this involves lots of people, so we have to monitor things like roads, carparks, water supply and sewage and look at how it’s affecting the local environment.
“We look at how we can better use resources. If we do not look after resources then we lose them, such as many other tourist destinations overseas have done.
“If we look at pollution as [an effect] – you look at the two most populated countries like China and India and you can [see] how pollution has affected the environment. So we have to look at those countries and learn from that.”
The research group will officially be known as the Waikato tourism monitoring observatory and will see post-graduate students spend either one or two years interviewing at length, tourists from the two Waikato towns.
Research will then be presented annually to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and after five-years, all the information will be collated and presented.
Mohsin hoped that after a year, the observatory would have a better understanding of the effects of tourism on the environment.
The application took one year and needed support from the government and local tourism bodies.
Professor Chris Ryan, who is leading the research programme, worked closely with former Prime Minister John Key when he was Minister for Tourism and then with current minister, Paula Bennett.
“It’s important that we actively manage the pressures that increasing tourist numbers can put on our natural, social and built environments. The observatory will play an important role in providing robust data for better informed planning and decision-making around tourism in New Zealand,” Ryan said.
At present, there are 18 observatories across the country.
The five-year research programme will be funded by the Waikato Management School at a cost of between $7000-$10,000 per year.
The costs will mostly be associated with travel for students to interview tourists. The observatory do not currently receive any funds from the UNWTO but Mohsin said they can apply for funds in the future.
Chief Executive of Hamilton & Waikato Tourism, Jason Dawson, said it’s important to not only assess the economic benefits of tourism but start to consider and monitor environmental impacts.
“This is especially relevant given the pressures we experience during the peak summer period [with] the immediate growth in volume of visitor numbers into our region,” he said.
“The research project will allow us to also track the effectiveness of driving visitation into our shoulder seasons and the dispersal of visitors around the region.
“What we learn will not only benefit Raglan and Waitomo, it can also be applied to other areas of the region, New Zealand and the world.”