After two years, New Zealand has fully reopened its borders to international visitors.
On Monday, the tiny island nation lifted its last restrictions on visitors, opening up to maritime arrivals, international students on study visas, and tourists from non-visa waiver countries like China and India.
All arrivals will need to be double-vaccinated - but won't face a quarantine period on arrival. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called it an "enormous moment."
But as it opens up, New Zealand - globally renowned for its pristine natural landscape - has a message for visitors.
“The future will not look like the past.”
These are the words of Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA) chief executive Rebecca Ingram. But they encapsulate a shift - to regenerative, sustainable travel - that is being embraced by the entire industry.
Why is New Zealand so popular with tourists?
Before the pandemic, New Zealand (also known by its Māori name, Aotearoa) was a global tourism hotspot.
Between 2016 and 2019, roughly 11 million visitors descended on the island-nation, which boasts a permanent population of just 5 million.
In picturesque Milford Sound Piopiotahi, cruise liner visits almost quadrupled in 13 years, peaking at 133 in 2019.
In 2020, annual visitor numbers to the Sound were predicted to tip one million.
Then the pandemic struck, and the country locked its borders.
Amidst huge economic pain - the average tourism business let go 40 per cent of staff and saw revenues halve in the year to May 2021, a TIA survey revealed - there was space for reflection.
How did the pandemic change tourism in New Zealand?
For two years, cruises unloading their passengers on port towns and tourists rushing around the South Island were a distant memory. Some communities liked it that way.
“As an industry, we have listened to the concerns that some communities had before the pandemic about the growth of tourism and how it was impacting their lifestyle and environment,” Rebecca Ingram says.
“Changes have been made to ensure the New Zealand tourism experience is one that New Zealanders can be proud of.”
The government has passed new laws restricting ‘freedom camping’. While local communities have written destination management plans to guard against “**overcrowding** and the negative effects of tourism.”
In over-subscribed Milford Piopiotahi, proposals include capping daily entry at 4000 and introducing an international visitor fee.
“The last two years have given us the opportunity to reflect on how we can manage our tourism industry better,” says Ingram.
Individual tourism businesses are also seeking to “green” their own operations, with 1600 signing up to TIA’s “sustainability commitment.”
Carino Wildlife Tours in the beautiful Bay of Islands is one of these operators.
The tour doubles as a “citizen science” project, explains Carino managing director Vanessa McKay. Each cruise collects data on penguin, shark, stingray, and dolphin numbers.
“It’s about enjoying recreationally and then adding to it. Visitors are marine kaitiaki (guardians). We let them take ownership,” she explains.
“It’s about making a place better than you found it. It’s for the next generation. It’s really about the kids.”
Wildwire Wanaka is another business giving back.
The attraction - the world’s highest waterfall cable climb - wants to become carbon positive, says Director Mark Morrison.
“Our vision is to be fully regenerative,” he says.
“Whenever we have guests, we want them to give back through conservation… Whether it’s checking traps in an effort to bring birds back into the area or carrying seeds on the journey which guests use to plant more trees.”
“Our goal is to get to the point of the community seeing tourists and being thrilled they’re here as they know they’re giving back to the community.”
What is The Tiaki Promise?
The pandemic has accelerated the embrace of sustainability - but Aotearoa has long been a world leader in regenerative tourism.
From 2019, international visitors to national parks had to pay a levy of NZ$35 (€21.50).
However, the shift is also psychological. In 2018, Tourism New Zealand launched the Tiaki Promise. Tiaki means “care” in te reo Māori.
“While in New Zealand I will care for land, sea, and nature, treading lightly and leaving no trace,” the pledge, which visitors are encouraged to take, reads.
The promise is inspired by the rich Māori tradition of respect and reciprocity with the natural landscape, explains Oscar Nathan, Tourism Bay of Plenty’s general manager.
“The concept of regeneration is not new, it is based on the idea that everyone is connected to the environment and must respect it - a belief embedded in Te Ao Māori (the Māori world).
As the first international visitors for two years touch down in NZ, the beleaguered tourism industry will welcome them with open arms. But they’ll also ask them to tread lightly.