To what extent is over-tourism a problem in Milford Sound?
Milford Sound if it is a 'town' is a tourist town, it has been since the beginning, the tourists are not the problem, they are welcome. Many effects of over-tourism in Milford Sound are inherently environmental. Nowhere in Milford Sound or on the Milford Road is the infrastructure 'of a large European city'.
There are a few things that make Milford unique. It is relatively remote, at least 2 hours drive from Te Anau by a precarious and challenging road, much of it within a National Park and World Heritage Area. Milford Sound is also severely constrained by space, there is nowhere else to build. Every existing building and parking area is vulnerable to landslide or flooding. The river, an earthquake or tsunami could literally change everything in a matter of hours.
In the summer, in spite of intense traffic management, parking has become a major problem. There is not enough space to accommodate all the cars and campervans. From 1 October 2019 a $10/hour parking charge has been imposed to encourage car pooling. Many risky driving behaviors are evident on the Milford Road. Flights are a finite resource, the total number of landings is capped. Planes and helicopters are major polluters, within the steep walls of the fiord their noise degrades the experience of many many people. Bussing people in degrades the experience for tourists, there is so much to see and do along the Milford Road. To travel by bus is to miss the point. Certainly, smaller group guided tours are a good option for many people. The average number of people in cars and campervans is not much above 2 people, so here is an opportunity. Would you get into a car with strangers to travel a remote road notorious for its idiotic risk-taking drivers?
In reality, there is a hard limit to the tourism capacity of Milford Sound. More tourists degrade the experience of all tourists, by harming the environment and overloading finite infrastructure. The real question is how to limit visitor numbers to a level that can be sustained in the long term. Powerful vested interests of tourism industry players make that a very difficult, intensely political problem. The current talkfest of the Milford Opportunities Project is unlikely to solve that in a meaningful way.
The Department of Conservation will need to be supported to step in with measures that limit visitor numbers and it has already started with increased compliance activities directed at commercial tour operators and aircraft companies.After the February 2020 floods the Milford Road was closed and Te Anau suddenly became a wonderful place to live in the summer with manageable tourist numbers. Many operators reported tourists were staying longer in our town and spending more money, it worked for everyone. There were significantly fewer visitors, their experience was much better, less crowded and busy, as was that of local people.
In a post Covid-19 world, if Milford Sound cruise passengers were limited in the same way as Milford Sound flights, to 50 000 pax per month say, we would eventually reach a situation where seats are fully booked in the summer and the overflow will be pushed into the shoulder season and winter. The visitor experience would improve dramatically, they would be safe to self drive and enjoy their time without crowds or being shepherded along by time constrained tour groups. Staff could be employed year round instead of seasonally and local people will be able to return to the relaxing lifestyle we once enjoyed.
Bums on seats and tourism industry profits do not serve the community as a whole. Tourism profits have in the past been exported from our town by large corporate empire building businesses while the environment, the taxpayer and the greater Fiordland community are left to bear the very real intangible costs of the tourism circus.