Our purpose is to preserve New Zealand's whitewater resources and enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely.

Tourism, Conservation and Recreation



Ten years ago I gave talk in this very room about the Grand Canyon. Most present were shocked to be told that the waiting time then for a private river trip permit was 7 years. Today it is 26 years. You have to be over 21 years of age to apply. Do the maths and weep.

Getting away from it all

There is a need to review or remind each generation what 'wildness' is and what it means to us. How can we escape the trappings of the modern world when we take them with us? Technological advances such as mountain bikes, kayaks, scuba gear, and helicopters have enabled us access to more and more hitherto untouched places on the planet. When I'm deep in a gorge on one of our alpine rivers I am uncomfortably aware that my presence in this wild place is partly dependent on the skilled application of the advanced mechanical technology that I used to get to the headwaters. Isn't this aid to kayaking - and I might add, high country fishing, hunting and climbing, the very antithesis of wilderness? When I've paddled the Karamea River, landing above the wilderness area, and then paddling through it, almost every human being I've seen there has used helicopter access. I simply could never have enjoyed this wilderness without these energy consuming expensive noisy and wonderful contraptions called helicopters. I assume the same applies to the rafters, fishers, DOC staff, hunters and professional photographers sharing this place with me.

I did the first kayak descent of the Arahura River in 1986. The next kayak descent wasn't until around 1992. On one day last summer there were 58 paddlers from all over the world on this river, all participating in the new internationally famous sport of heli-kayaking. Read any glossy European or American outdoors magazine and you will see that the West Coast of New Zealand is the hottest extreme kayaking destination on the planet. If we encourage recreation one day, it seems we have to allow tourism the next.

Helicopters, for example, have more of a social impact than an ecological one. The issues are principally in the realm of subjective human experience and personal values. It's all to do with how we relate as individuals to our wild lands and to one another in these places. Am I being hypocritical if I feel justified in using a helicopter to go kayaking, but feel intense resentment at others' use of them if I have struggled for two days to walk into the same place?

A new generation of kayakers is exploring the headwaters of the Hokitika, Waitaha, Wanganui, Whataroa, Karangarua, Arawhata and many more 'impossible' rivers. Much of this country is wilderness or proposed wilderness within national park. Extension of the wilderness areas and Conservation Management Plans possibly will exclude kayaking from whole sections of our wild rivers. Is tramping and climbing intrinsically more worthy than kayaking? What do trampers know about kayaking in these areas? How does the presence of kayakers affect trampers' experience? Or is it just the mode of access? Are we headed for conflict or are we going to find out what we collectively value and then focus our resources towards a shared vision?

More Questions than Answers

  • Has the popularity of outdoor recreation and tourism growth outmatched the ability of managers to maintain high quality ecological and social conditions in our national parks, reserves and wilderness areas?
  • Is our marketing drive for more overseas visitors placing unacceptable pressure on the conservation estate? How do our protective mechanisms keep pace?
  • Is there a coherent strategy which links marketing right through to delivery of the "product" and how do we maintain the quality of the experience?
  • What are our values? Are our personal values even relevant?
  • Are there any absolutes any more?

Ecological experts will not be able to answer these questions. For this reason, I would like to talk to you today about social psychology research with respect to tourism and outdoor recreation and what this means in wild places management.

We have a lot to lose if we fail to manage our visitors to our wild lands sensibly. Do it badly - or worse still not at all, and we will lose not only the economic benefits, but we risk the often irretrievable loss of parts of our natural heritage. For the commercially motivated visitor industry, a decline in the quality of visitor experience through negative ecological impacts and overcrowding is simply bad business. For the private visitor with an inter-generational view, true guardianship of our wild lands excludes over exploitation and benign neglect as a substitute for visionary policy.

I want to address social aspects of visitors to the conservation estate. The other threats such as weeds and possums are largely technical matters of money and priorities. On visitors, everyone is an expert. Also possums don't yet have a vote and write letters to their MP. With GE, however, all is possible.

Tourism and Us

At the outset I ask you to put aside notions that overseas visitors are somehow intrinsically bad and us locals are intrinsically good. Some myths are easily dispelled by the facts. At present the Abel Tasman, for example, is most crowded during Christmas/New Year when overseas visitors are largely absent, yet we are constantly assaulted with xenophobic commentary from many quarters.

Totaranui Campground: The peaks are at Christmas/New Year, Nelson Anniversary Day and Easter - all Kiwi holidays. During February and March ten years ago the park was practically empty during the week and now it is constantly buzzing with commercial craft and a daily dose of walkers and kayakers. I think this is why locals now perceive the park as crowded, yet it's always been busy at Christmas/New Year. Having said this, the situation is changing and the mathematics are not on the side of the poets and philosophers.

Management Based on Value Judgments - the Need for Social Research

Here's the part where value judgments come into play. I am the person in this picture.
(See NZTB poster of lone kayaker in the Abel Tasman)

Some hundreds of thousands of these posters have been sent all over the world. I am told there are huge billboards of this image in New York and other major cities. To me it encapsulates all that is wonderful about New Zealand and the Abel Tasman in particular. Judging by the resultant growth in sea kayaking here this vision is universally shared. Or is it? I once showed this picture to some Hong Kong travel agents. The reaction was some inscrutable Chinese conversation but revealing body language all round.

"What's the problem?" I asked.
"Where are all the people? What's wrong with this place?" they replied.

I think it's fair to state that the concerns most of us have today are more related to our social experience in the wild places than our purist ecological concerns. There are exceptions, such as in caves, waahi tapu sites and places like Waikoropupu Springs and Cape Reinga, where a complex combination of conflicts has arisen as visitors have increased. Even in these examples where Maori values clash with tourism and recreation, the issues tend to revert to the variance in personal values. Where there is an ecological value, we accept absolutes. We keep out of the takahe's habitat. We do not land on Takapourewa (Stephen's Island).

Outdoor recreationalists in New Zealand are unhappy about increasing air access, closures of huts and tracks and greater emphasis on front country facilities at the expense of other more 'worthy' ways to spend the limited conservation dollar. We are seeing more frequent attempts by commercial interests to encroach on public conservation lands for mechanised delivery systems and structures. The correlation between increasing tourism and increasing assaults on our values seems clear enough in our minds. Assuming that the visitor flow will not diminish, and new technology will continue to be developed, what should our response be?

If we set aside those instances where ecological considerations are the primary concern, then the criterion must be the visitor's experience. Unfortunately not everyone shares a common perception of what constitutes a satisfying experience.

For example: Scenario A - A kayaker meets a jet skier in a quiet cove on a lake somewhere. The kayaker's experience is largely negative. 'Noisy bugger! Polluting hoon! Piss off!' The jet skier's experience is largely positive. 'Great - an audience! I'll buzz around his kayak and see if I can tip him over! It'll make my day!'

It's the same encounter, but with entirely different values depending on ones perspective. Who is the tolerant? Who is considerate?

Let's take a less black and white scenario.

Scenario B: Kayakers, rafters and jet boaters in the Shotover River.

  • Kayakers enjoy meeting other kayakers in twos and threes. Rafters are OK if there's only one small party. Jet boats ruin the experience totally.
  • Rafters enjoy seeing kayakers and other rafters, lifting their enjoyment factor. OK to see maybe one jet boat - any more ruin the day.
  • Jet boat passengers like to see kayakers and rafters and such encounters are seen as lifting the interest. Jet boat drivers don't want to meet kayakers for safety reasons. A few rafts are OK, but any more and the jet boat has to slow down too often.

Research can tell managers what the limits are and provide data on experiences. This research would identify and quantify the degree of consensus, or otherwise. From this data managers would then have a firm basis on which to base a management plan that (assuming the scenario is supported by fact) would probably need to constrain or exclude the jet boaters at times when social densities of other users are high. What we have in reality is an Act of Parliament governing the lower Shotover River, which favours commercial tourist jet boats to the exclusion of all other users, through a grant of control to a single company.

Management does not have to be draconian. Take the simplest case of all.

Scenario C: 100 visitors in 25 parties x 4 trampers on a track all going one direction. Say, 5 parties overtake 5 other parties. 20 x 20 = 400 encounters. On a two way track with 50 going north and 50 going south - the density is the same, but the number of encounters is 50 x 50 = 2,500 or over 6 times the social interaction. By spacing the parties' launch times and having one-way only managers could theoretically reduce the encounter rate to zero, or at least to an agreed rate of social encounters.

The setting, season, time of day, cultural, behavioral, the type of activity, as well as crowding factors can affect the visitor experience. The experience can be modified partly by managing expectations. If we expect a lot of social interaction then we will not be disappointed if there is a crowd. Imagine the kids' reaction to arriving at Totaranui campground and only 20 campers are there.

Pure Numbers are not Enough

A track counter on the Abel Tasman recorded 30,000 more people using one popular three-hour section than the previous year. Alarm bells are ringing. The toilets can't cope. But, we don't know which direction they went, who delivered them to the track start, what ages they were, what time of day, day of the week, where they came from, what they expected to find, what motivated them to come to this place, or what they experienced when they came. DOC has no jurisdiction over the foreshore and therefore cannot manage any visitors until they cross the high water mark, by which time all anyone can do is react. Only 18,000 visitors out of 200,000 are covered by concessions, so don't climb into the concessionaires either. Given this lack of information and absence of legal teeth, can we reasonably expect the Department of Conservation to be able to make management decisions regarding one of the most popular of our Great Walks?

Pure numbers therefore do not always provide the picture. We need to know so much more before rushing into management policies. Our Conservation Management Plans are full of social value judgments with the flimsiest of data to justify the policy. "There shall be no more than X guided parties in the Y valley." Who says? How many helicopters are too many? I couldn't make that judgment on behalf of anyone but myself. Value judgments often direct policy away from principles and measurable targets, unless they are the result of careful research and analysis.

Management of Social Impacts

I would like to set out some of the processes that I think need to be considered in dealing with the inevitable rise in visitor numbers. We talk very loosely in New Zealand about consultation. What we are really trying to achieve is a consensus value judgment. Social research can deliver in these cases. We tend not to question that there is no acceptable upper or lower limit on kakapo numbers, but we will continue to have strong and divergent opinions on visitor numbers.

So, how does one manage social impacts? The only starting point is proper research.

Research Goals and Outcomes

What can social research offer?

  1. Management Direction - can be focused by identifying desirable goals.
  2. What impacts are important? - need to define the salient characteristics of high quality settings. Eg. Front country might be clean toilets, neat grounds, and friendly staff. Backcountry might be number of social encounters, absence of aircraft, nature of social encounters, absence of visible ecological impacts.
  3. Define standards for management targets - eg., 80% probability of meeting 3 other parties per day. Management targets will be site and season specific. Totaranui Campground example. MTB use of the Queen Charlotte Walkway.
  4. Differentiate minimum conditions from optimal conditions - effect of promotion as a tool
  5. Identify important impacts about which people feel strongly - anticipate reactions to planned policies. (example VAMPS)
  6. Indicate degree of consensus among users -

Management Styles

The management process should arise out of the research findings. In the absence of research we resort to the personal value judgment approach and then are surprised at the often negative reaction to management plans and policies.

There are two basic management styles that can be used in isolation or in combination.

  1. Coalition Building - works well where there is a degree of crystallisation amongst users. Note that crystallisation is not the same thing as consensus.
  2. Conflict Resolution - has to be used where there is little crystallisation.

In my experience we sometimes tend to confuse consultation with seeking consensus, and track counters with on the ground social research.

How does this apply in practice?

Example - Guided walks on a Great Walk. An explosion of operators applies for concessions.

  1. Research to establish visitor experience data, developing trends, projections etc.
  2. Define values, acceptable limits and management goals.
  3. Apply items 1 through 6 above.
  4. Build a coalition of operators and user groups.
  5. Build a management policy based on the agreed visitor experience goals and the buy-in from the coalition.
  6. Use the coalition to provide monitoring and to self regulate.

Do it well, and you do not have to enter the conflict resolution phase, and you will achieve user pays.

Beyond VAMPs - here comes VERPs

My contention is that public land managers such as DOC and District Councils often formulate policy and CMP's based on the staffs' personal values and experience, then they put it out to public consultation. The "public" responds in varying degrees and the process takes years to sort out, is expensive in staffing and soul destroying for the NGOs and the public. Iwi concerns often slip through the cracks and all parties suffer 'consultation fatigue'.

If the authorities did some professional quality social research first, supported by ongoing monitoring, then built the coalitions that this research identifies, they would know with greater precision what management standards to set. Having established the management standards, the nuts and bolts of bylaws and plans should follow.

VAMPs - great management tool - not so sure about the process.

The Visitor Assets Management Programme is DOC's process to assign a value on all its assets, which are huts, bridges, boardwalks, toilets and viewing platforms etc. A complex rating system assigns a priority to each asset and this rating decides whether the asset is maintained or removed. After all there is not unlimited funding and it is good management to allocate resources according to priorities.

What happened? This is what it looked like from the outside looking in.

DOC writes it up in secret with no consultation and no social research, except dubious track counter data and hut book entries. The whole management objective is to impose value judgments on assets so that funding can be targeted more equitably and efficiently. I contend that the value judgments of the staff were the principal criteria that emerged. Then VAMPs is released with the announcement that it's not negotiable. They're still arguing with user groups over it. That's the conflict resolution part. With DOC as player and referee.

Alternative: Do some research, identify areas of poor data and who the coalitions might be. Do a second round of research involving the user groups so that they are participants in the process. Determine from this data the spectrum of value judgments of the users. Develop policy which is client (the public) oriented not management centred. etc etc.

Visitor Experience Research Programme

We don't know.
We need to know.
Let's find out.
And then, and only then, let's develop policy.

Our value judgments are also variable with maturity, peer group pressure, education, and experience. It is important to continue the research through monitoring trends and measuring outcomes. Trends are important, and therefore any research has to be supported over a period to overcome the blips caused by bad weather, fashions and our fluctuating economy.

I am not saying that DOC and other agencies do no social research. DOC, in particular, does quite a lot. Some is used to measure public perception of performance, but I think the use of social research early in the process of policy development is under valued. I have seen many decisions made in the smoke free rooms of conservation boards, the Conservation Authority and in district councils and DOC, made on individuals' personal values. Good people, managers and public alike, debating the issues, trying to formulate policies, but so often in the absence of any robust information. I think of the mountain biking debate, diving in Waikoropupu Springs, the Abel Tasman coast, air access, power boat racing on Lake Rotoiti, as examples.

What does this mean to user groups?

If the overseas visitor promotions achieve their aims, and the front country suffers from social pressure, will we lovers of wild places will be driven further into the back country? Quick, book the chopper! Get in the queue for a permit!

We need to do some work in ascertaining what values our own memberships have. We should not make assumptions based on the leadership's personal value judgments. During the 1980s and early 1990s the national Executive in canoeing was comprised of club stalwarts with a strong conservation bent. In the wider world of canoeing, however, we had members who treasured virgin white water rivers, a silent majority of multi sporters, and others who were winning Olympic gold medals on flat-water artificial hydro lakes. Until we thrashed out the issues we could not present a unified front. We discovered that the flat-water and competitive members ultimately shared the broader conservation values of the purely recreational membership and they asked those people to represent that unified view. We formed our own coalition. It has since expanded to include those values that we share with Fish & Game.

The challenge for our leadership now is to build the coalition further by exploring the issues with jet boaters, Iwi, tourism and farming. Does any kayaker have any idea, for example, how Ngai Tahu feel about paddlers on the Arahura? Do they know or care what kayakers do? That day on the Arahura back in 1986 I counted ten return helicopter trips carrying out loads of pounamu or greenstone. Wilderness indeed.

I started with helicopters and wilderness. Can social science help us resolve the issues? What do the many visitors to our wild areas believe in? How is their experience affected by the presence of others? How many is too many?

We need to remind the managers that Quality Conservation Management ultimately relates to visitor experience as well as the accepted ecological values. We visitors, whether delivered privately or via concessionaires, should be pressing for a partnership with the managers - a coalition - that participates in research, setting management goals and developing policy.

Then we can trust the managers to get on with it, and head for the hills, valleys and coast we love so much.

Hugh Canard


To Bo Shelby, who sent me (via Doug Rankin) a heap of papers about social research into outdoor recreation in the USA. If you want to study the issues and learn from land managers' experience in places with serious population densities, search for Bo Shelby's papers on the internet.

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