Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Short-Cut to Milford Sound

By Ian Lowe

Locals are sceptical of the benefits of plans to increase tourist accessibility to a World Heritage area in New Zealand.

One hundred and fifty years ago Otago’s first provincial geologist, Dr James Hector, walked from Martin’s Bay on the South Island of New Zealand’s west coast up the Hollyford Valley and crossed the mountains to reach Queenstown. Impressed by the timber and indications of mineral riches, he recommended a road be built along the route he had walked. The estimated cost proved an insurmountable obstacle and the road was never built.

In February I walked down the Hollyford Valley, nervously crossing deep gullies on scary three-wire bridges. It is largely unspoiled, as you would expect of a World Heritage area. But a battle is looming over a new proposal to drive a road through from Queenstown to reduce the travel time for tourists wanting to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

The locals are divided, even within the tourist industry. While some operators in those two centres support the proposal, others see it as threatening existing businesses. An 11.3 km tunnel would halve the travel time between Queenstown and Milford Sound. But as well as costing an estimated $150 million, it would bring buses into both Mt Aspiring and Fiordland national parks.

While the Department of Conservation had suggested that the impacts could be acceptable with “appropriate conditions”, 1235 submissions were received by the closing date in February. It would be safe to assume that most of them opposed the scheme. One prominent objector, a member of Wellington City Council, said the proposal is inconsistent with the management plans for the two national parks and incompatible with Fiordland’s status as a World Heritage area.

*****

A second proposal for major transport development in the area is also being considered. Property developer Riverstone Holdings has lodged an application to develop a “travel experience” that would combine a catamaran across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown, an all-terrain bus and then a 43 km monorail to reach the existing road north of the small town of Te Anau.

I attended a packed public meeting at which a nervous developer tried to convince about 200 sceptical locals that his scheme would “help Te Anau get over the hump that it’s in”. Since the main point of his presentation was that his scheme would boost the numbers visiting Milford Sound by shortening the trip, their scepticism was understandable: the point of the scheme is to get visitors from Queenstown to Milford more quickly by avoiding Te Anau.

I was in Queenstown the next day when a much smaller meeting was more sympathetic, but the whole business model seems to be based on the notion that overseas tourists want to stay in Queenstown and see Milford Sound as a day trip. That involves a round trip of about 700 km, so it is not an attractive proposition. But it is not clear that tourists would prefer a 500 km round trip with the need to get on and off different vehicles.

The public meeting jeered the claim that the new experience would be easier for disabled people. I was puzzled by the assertion that there would be environmental benefits if improved transport made it possible to double the number of boat trips each day on Milford Sound.

While the locals clearly think the proposal is flawed, they also appeared worried that a pro-development government in Wellington will lean on the Department of Conservation to be sympathetic. The locals in Fiordland will be waiting anxiously for the two decisions, expected around the middle of the year.

*****

I referred last month to the report of the United Nations high level panel on sustainability, expressing the hope that Kevin Rudd might use his status to drive the recommendations locally. Alas, Mr Rudd had other things on his mind.

But the key message of the report desperately needs attention in Australia and New Zealand. It said that “the concept of sustainable development has not yet been incorporated into the mainstream national and international economic policy debate. Most economic decision-makers still regard sustainable development as extraneous to their core responsibilities for macroeconomic management and other branches of economic policy. Yet integrating environmental and social issues into economic decisions is vital to success.” Hear, hear.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.