It's crunch time for Queenstown – let tourist numbers double, or shut the gate?
It’s an economy built on tourism, but with the roads already clogged and visitor numbers set to double in the next decade, how will Queenstown cope? DEBBIE JAMIESON investigates
“If this goes through, there’s no stopping.”
Queenstown Lakes District Councillor Alexa Forbes is referring to the Queenstown Airport Corporation’s plan to extend its noise boundaries. If it proceeds it will allow the airport to more than double the number of arrival and departures from two million to over 5 million. The plan looks out towards 2045 but the airport’s own forecasts suggest they will hit their self-imposed 5.1m limit in 2031.
Given that only about one-third of visitors arrive via Queenstown Airport, the actual increase in tourism numbers could be considerably higher.
For a small town in a tiny basin this will have massive ripple effects and people are starting to feel nervous.
That includes well-known resident, Sir Eion Edgar, who thinks the airport, and by extension the town, has already hit capacity.
“We do not have the infrastructure and the [airport] noise will be soul-destroying. Let’s go for quality not quantity,” he wrote in a public submission.
Forbes lives in Frankton – the suburb where the airport sits – and her property is within the extended noise boundaries. She chairs the council’s infrastructure committee, with the unenviable job of keeping up with growth, and is a lecturer in sustainability.
“This has opened the whole growth question. It probably needs to. It’s probably time to peel back the onion again and get the community to look and see what we’re going to be giving up.”
Fewer than 20,000 people live in Queenstown while about 3 million visitors arrived last year to walk tracks, view mountains, ski, bungy jump, play golf, drink wine, eat, party and attend conferences.
Queenstown is struggling to keep up. There is a desperate shortage of affordable housing, roads are clogged at peak times and the council is pleading for Government help.
Locals like Kirsty Sharpe are starting to feel fed up. A resident for more than 40 years, she says life in the small town has changed beyond recognition.
“There’s rental cars, no parking and traffic congestion everywhere and large groups of strangers on the streets.”
She finds it difficult to imagine the increased numbers and noise the airport is planning and is considering leaving Queenstown.
Destination Queenstown chief executive Graham Budd has the job of marketing Queenstown to the world but is aware of growing resistance to the increasing number of visitors.
He is monitoring how visitors feel about Queenstown. So far the results remain positive but he is concerned that could change if infrastructure fails to keep up with growth.
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Mayor Jim Boult has a billion dollar infrastructure plan but has not got the money to carry it out. He has lobbied for $278 million in Crown funds and continues to fight for a visitor levy to help with the town’s infrastructure, especially roading.
He says the time is coming when the community will need to talk about growth.
“We are going to have to have an adult discussion about whether there is a finite number of visitors we can host in the district. Last July, I went to Scotland and Edinburgh Castle. I lasted in there for half an hour. It was just a sea of people and I got the hell out of it as fast as I could go.
“I do not want this area to end up anywhere near that.”
The council is in a tight spot when it comes to the airport. It is the majority shareholder (owning 75.1 per cent, with the remainder owned by Auckland Airport) and regulator when it comes to District Plan changes. Council staff are helping the airport with its noise boundary proposal.
Community consultation finishes on August 20, the airport will submit it’s final version of its proposal, the council will decide whether to accept it or not as a variation to the Proposed District Plan, then independent commissioners will hear it.
For this reason, Boult – the former Christchurch Airport chief executive – will not give an opinion, but said if the airport could not cater for demand, from locals and tourists alike, people might simply travel by road.
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Forbes is concerned about the implications for transport infrastructure. The NZ Transport Agency recently reported there are 30,000 vehicle movements on peak days on the main route between Queenstown and Frankton, Frankton Rd.
“Queenstown will easily be as bad as Auckland,” she says.
Forbes is also worried about the airport’s push to limit growth in areas within the proposed new noise boundaries.
Within the boundaries are more than 3000 homes – some next to the airport in Frankton, others in surrounding areas such as Shotover Country, Kelvin Heights and along Frankton Rd.
The airport will offer to buy the 34 homes most affected. Some will be offered mitigation packages including double glazing and mechanical ventilation to reduce the noise inside their homes.
Most will face restrictions on what they can do with their property, such as subdivide, extend or build a granny flat.
“Why would we as a community diminish the amenity value of our best zoned land by allowing the airport to have this sort of control over our planning district?” says Forbes.
Frankton Community Association chairman Glyn Lewers says the airport is “shooting themselves in the foot”.
“They want to expand and want more workers but in the same breath they’re telling everyone in and around the Frankton area: ‘no, we don’t want any more houses’.
“They’re also limiting future workers’ options. It’s driving people away from Frankton and all the services are in Frankton, all the infrastructure is in Frankton so you’re actually increasing the burden on the ratepayer when all these housing developments have to come out of Frankton out to these satellite areas, so there will be the cost of bringing infrastructure into Frankton.”
Queenstown Airport chief executive Colin Keel says the airport must push on with its plans.
“If we continue to grow the way we are we will reach current boundary numbers in three to four years. So time is of the essence.”
There are other options: the airport could be moved elsewhere, the Wanaka airport – also managed by Queenstown Airport – could be utilised (this is being considered) or more flights could be scheduled for nearby Invercargill or Dunedin, which are also gateways to tourism spots around the lower South Island.
Airport figures from 2017 show about 13 per cent of Queenstown Airport users were from a two-hour radius from the airport – that is locals and those from the wider Otago and Southland area taking advantage of the cheaper national and trans-Tasman fares available from Queenstown. It is estimated about 5 per cent drive from areas outside the Wakatipu, including Invercargill and Dunedin, putting further pressure on already fragile roading and parking capacity.
Forbes says that continuing to grow Queenstown at the expense of the other regional airports should be resisted. “We need to figure out whether our airport should be a boutique destination, not the largest. It shouldn’t be the place where the cheapest flights can be obtained,” she says.
Closeburn resident Doug Bailey has been a vocal critic of the airport since moving into his property, which is well outside the proposed noise boundaries, and being driven to distraction by the large numbers of helicopters and small planes flying overhead.
“Growth is having significant negative impacts on the alpine environment, on our infrastructure requirements and I think it imperils the future of Queenstown as a quality tourism destination.”
“We live in a lovely spot. I look across the lake to Cecil Peak and Walter Peak. It’s a magnificent spot. You can’t replicate it in New Zealand. My wife and I are thinking of leaving. We don’t want to. We learned to tolerate it to a certain extent. The prospect of it getting worse? No thank you.”