Rising tourism sector challenges New Zealand's dirty dairy industry

BY Xinhua News AgencyJan 24,2016 at 03:11

Tourism and dairy are New Zealand's two biggest export earners, but for how long can they develop in tandem?

That's the question some in the tourism sector are starting to ask as the nation wakes up to damage inflicted on many of its lakes, rivers and streams by the intensification and expansion of dairy farming over the last two decades.

Both sectors have traded on the country's "clean and green" reputation: one drawing visitors with images of idyllic, pristine landscapes, and the other branding its products with bucolic, rural scenes.

But dairy's dominance in export earnings had enabled the sector to ride out growing concern over the changes wreaked on the environment until global dairy prices began their plunge last year. 

That, along with the sharp growth in overseas visitors to New Zealand, a drive to encourage free independent travellers to explore more of the country, and tourism's emergence as the top export earner in the year to September 2015 are stirring a change in attitudes. 

Happy medium necessary

"The dairy sector is really important to New Zealand -- don't doubt that for a second -- but tourism is also, and there has to be a happy medium," said Tourism Export Council New Zealand (TECNZ) president Martin Horgan.

"We don't want to see the dairy industry suffer, but we also want them to be responsible and to clean up any mess that they've made."

Last month, TECNZ, a trade association representing the inbound tourism industry, pledged its "political and financial support" to the Choose Clean Water Tour campaign to document the condition of more than 25 lakes and rivers around the country and how the continuing pollution of waterways was affecting people and the environment.

Campaigners would also be collecting signatures for a petition to push for stronger protection at a time when freshwater legislation is under review, and calling for the minimum standard for waterways to be raised from the current "wadeable" to "swimmable."

Horgan said that the country's conservation areas still boasted some of the best water quality and most pristine environments in the world, "but outside of those areas in some of the more agriculturally focused parts of the country, we do have concerns about the quality of New Zealand's waterways."

"We definitely feel there's been some degradation of our waterways and we would hate to see that continue," Horgan told Xinhua by phone.

"There's two parts to that: one, as New Zealanders, we want to protect our country and I want my kids to be able to go to the river and have a swim; and secondly, if our reputation as a clean,  green environmentally sensitive country was to suffer -- and I really don't think it is at the moment -- it would most definitely be bad for the tourism industry." 

Detrimental effect

The tourism industry needed to "protect its patch" and the government was not heeding concerns despite moves to encourage farmers to fence off and plant alongside waterways to prevent contamination.

"We're seeing a massive spike in visitor arrivals to New Zealand at the moment and there's a much wider distribution of tourists throughout New Zealand than ever before," he said.

"There is the opportunity for people, our clients, to be exposed to waterways that are in less than perfect shape. We also don't want the situation where media offshore in years to come were to, for example, say 'Well, hang on, New Zealand is not living up to its clean, green environmental promise, look at this.'   That would most definitely have a detrimental effect."

Experts and scientists have issued repeated warnings about the contamination of New Zealand's fresh waterways.

In 2013, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright issued a report that warned of "weeds, slime and algae" clogging waterways if the country continued to sacrifice its "clean green" brand to greater returns from dairy.

She followed up with a second report last year saying the pollution of waterways caused predominantly by nutrients used in dairy farming had likely been "underpredicted" in the 2013 report.

To its credit, the government had invested heavily in developing policy to improve the management of fresh water, Wright said, but "in many places, water quality continues to decline." 

"Shocker" rivers

Dr. Mike Joy, of Massey University's Institute of Agriculture and Environment and a prominent advocate for cleaning up New Zealand's waterways, was instrumental in stirring the TECNZ into action.

"In our conservation estate, in our national parks, we have the best rivers in the world. The part where the tourists are going has nothing wrong with it," Joy told Xinhua by phone.

"At the other end, it's a shocker."

Joy said the government had "their heads in the sand" regarding the environmental consequences of a policy to double agricultural production.

"The free independent travellers are going to see much more of the reality and they're not going to like what they see," he said.

"I don't know what tourists expect, but certainly what New Zealanders expect is that you can go swimming at anywhere you can get public access to. So many of those places now have signs saying it's dangerous."

Government claims that it was taking steps to improve fresh waterways were disingenuous, he said, as the criteria for fencing and planting excluded many of the smaller tributary streams.

Under the guise of protecting waterways, the government had also set a standard for contact recreation that the water must be "wadeable" -- not suitable for putting one's head in -- as opposed to "swimmable."

"This is coming up for review in September and that's what the drive of Choose Clean Water is -- to put pressure on the government through that petition and however else to make sure these rules get toughened up again and get back to somewhere near where they were before or better," he said. 

Advocates for action

Xinhua requested an interview with Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key, but his office referred a list of written questions to Environment Minister Nick Smith, who replied with a written statement.

"New Zealand does have challenges around improving our freshwater management but our overall water quality is good by international standards, and the places where it is unsafe to swim are the exception rather than the rule," Smith said in the statement.

There has been a huge reduction in the amount of pollution to waterways from point source discharges over the past 25 years, said the statement.

Smith admitted that the new challenge is the diffuse pollution that comes from more intense agriculture.

The government had put in place New Zealand's first National Policy Statement on freshwater in 2011 and set minimum standards in 2013, and most local authorities were choosing to set a minimum contact standard of swimmable.

"It is neither practical or possible for every river and lake to be swimmable and at all times, and nor has this ever been the case," said Smith.

"We also have a comprehensive program and a massive investment going to freshwater clean-ups involving over 400 million NZ dollars (260.88 million U.S. dollars)," he said.

"We are also increasing the transparency of water quality reporting with the passage of the Environmental Reporting Act in 2015 and the new website LAWA (Land, Air, Water Aotearoa), which gives up-to-date measurements of water quality. These will help drive community efforts to improve water quality but also give transparency to international visitors on our water standards."

Joy and Horgan believe more needs to be done, and they hope the petition will spur action to clean up polluted waterways.

"I believe we've been far too quiet," Horgan said.

"The biggest thing for us is to make the tourism industry aware as advocates for action and for actually doing something and to not be complacent,"

"We've been complacent. We've left the protection of our waterways to somebody else" he said.

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