From the Regions: Managing the Tongariro Crossing

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Image: Eliduke

Tourism development consultant Dave Bamford on the Tongariro Crossing’s new management plan and why we shouldn’t be afraid to apply service and facility fees at our most popular national park sites.

Dave Bamford

Finally, the Department of Conservation and Tuwharetoa, guardians of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, have introduced proactive management for this world-famous, World Heritage day walk.

Starting from Labour Weekend, visitors are now being managed with the aim of reducing social, environmental and cultural impacts on the mountain. Hopefully, the days of jamming more than 2,000 walkers on the track in a single day are over. Hopefully there will also be a significant reduction in crowding at key track locations, in toilet waste and in offensive cultural behaviour. (Click here for the DOC media release)

The main management change has been the introduction of a user pay “Park and Ride” transport system for Tongariro Alpine Crossing walkers. This involves the provision of public shuttle services from carparks in the surrounding villages and towns; Ohakune, National Park, Whakapapa, Turangi and Taupo. The shuttles take walkers to the track entrance at Mangatepopo Valley.

Limited spaces at the road end car park are available for people visiting the Mangatepopo Valley for up to four hours, for exploring short walks. The Mangatepopo road entrance will be controlled and monitored for the entire summer season, through to 30 April 2018.

From first-hand accounts the introduction of the new system at Labour Weekend went smoothly. There were 1,500 track visitors, mainly from overseas, and the approach worked. As well, concern expressed by some New Zealanders regarding potential limitations on New Zealanders’ freedom of access to the National Park was not justified. Access is still available for all.

Looking at the big picture what has happened – and it’s possibly a decade overdue – is that we are now prioritising ahead of visitor demands the health and integrity of this part of Tongariro National Park. The Crossing has a long history of use. However, over the last 50 years, there has been considerable change in the track quality, the type and volume of visitors, and the social and environmental impacts of increased use.

In the mid-1970s the crossing was a rutted, deeply eroded pumice track that had fewer than 1,000 visitors in an entire year. It was very much a tramper’s adventure. By the 1990s the track had become a popular tourist attraction with more than 10,000 walkers in 1992/3 enjoying a well-managed and upgraded track. In 2012/13 there were more than 63,000 walkers. This number has more than doubled in just the last five years to over 130,000 walkers last season. Managing this number of walkers and their impacts is essential.

In addition to the “Park and Ride” transport system, the management approach for this coming summer includes increased ranger presence and more toilet facilities. These improvements should both benefit the environment and enhance visitor enjoyment of what should be a great National Park experience.

With the continued growth in tourism to and in New Zealand, especially to our National Parks, there is a need to be proactive about new management approaches to protect our natural and cultural assets. Current National Park legislation allows for freedom of access, however, I believe this should not be at the expense of the environment and our social and cultural values. Managing visitor use in pressure areas is crucial.

Popular locations such as Taranaki/Mt Egmont’s summit climb; Aoraki/Mount Cook’s Hooker Valley; Mt Aspiring’s Rob Roy Glacier walk; Westland’s Franz Josef Glacier walk and aerial landings; and Fiordland’s Piopiotahi/Milford Sound and Eglington Valley, to name a few, are all suffering every tourist season from ever-increasing visitor pressure. These areas urgently need enhanced management and new approaches.

These can include measures such as providing public shuttle transport from nearby villages, controls and limits on mechanised transport such as aircraft snow landings. Some of these improved management strategies will require more funding for DOC. The political commitment to introducing a taonga/green border tax is timely and should ideally be introduced within the new government’s first term.

Also, we should not be scared to apply visitor service and facility fees at the most popular national park sites, such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Piopiotahi/Milford Sound, where logistically practical.

The improved management example that DOC and iwi have established at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is timely and great. They should be congratulated. Let’s look at considering sustainable approaches elsewhere in New Zealand at our special, protected area, pressure points.


Dave Bamford is an independent tourism development consultant who began his career as a New Zealand national park ranger in the mid-1970s. This column is republished from his blog with his permission.

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