OPINION: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’

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In the last 10 years, pre-Covid, substantial increases in road traffic from Te Anau to Milford Sound have caused considerable congestion and associated problems at Milford.

The Southland District Council and other administering bodies in the area asked the government of the day for assistance.

The Milford Opportunities Project group (MOP) was appointed four years ago by government to study the problems and make recommendations back about possible solutions for the future.

However, it should be noted MOP has no statutory powers and can only make recommendations.

Recommendations must be based on facts, and not misleading commentary, as is evident in some of the detail in the latest MOP public document and recent meetings.

MOP has recently presented its masterplan for the future of Milford Sound tourism.

Some of the suggestions would assist the area’s problems but are hugely aspirational and costly.

Suggested offsets are a large overseas visitor entry charge into the area to pay for the associated operational costs incurred enhancing the area’s appeal.

However, part of this plan as presented involves the closure of Milford Sound’s runway and suggests the land be revegetated for reasons that are nebulous when considering the reason a time-poor traveller chooses when considering air travel over land transport.

Restrictions on helicopter landings in the area are not affected and it is noted suggestions offer more landing pads.

But helicopters offer smaller passenger capacity, more noise, higher passenger cost per seat and higher carbon footprint per passenger.

They do, however, have a small place in visitor travel choices.

Past concerns about noise and reduced aircraft movements are two factors that the Department of Conservation (DoC) has been trying to reduce over decades.

To achieve this, local operators in recent times have all invested heavily in larger-capacity, quieter aircraft, and total movements to Milford have reduced.

The suggestion of airstrip closure is a stab in the back for a sector that has done its bit to enhance the visitors’ experience.

DoC had representation on the MOP board, and I would hope that the positives fixed-wing aircraft bring to the area were properly considered?

Although other sector groups have representation associated with the MOP, the aviation industry was not offered a seat on the MOP board.

Thus these current recommendations affecting them so adversely have been made without cognisance of their inputs or challenge of statements, some of which are incorrect.

MOP’s own public survey/peer review showed 85% of respondents disagreed with removing the runway.

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The survey report noted this was the most responded to and most disliked idea put forward for public consideration.

Despite this factor, the idea remains in the proposal.

The Milford area problem is mainly associated with the Te Anau-Milford Road, parking and congestion issues and tired local infrastructure.

Aviation is not a problem.

It represents around 10% of visitors travelling in and out of the area, but has been recognised world-wide as a top attraction option for the time-poor traveller for over 73 years.

It is proposed to revegetate the airport land.

If so, a valuable piece of infrastructure would be lost and it would be a significant problem in the case of local emergencies, as in the past, when large numbers people had to be evacuated from Milford by aircraft due to road closures due to avalanches, rockfalls and flooding.

I wonder if the significance of this factor has been considered?

Southern communities and their elected representatives, the New Zealand aviation community and its associated representative bodies and NZ’s tourism industry, as a
whole, should be made aware of these proposed moves and vigorously oppose airport
closure.

The airstrip’s closure would affect all air craft operations — commercial, training and private.

Alert your local MPs and interest groups.

As singer Joni Mitchell sang , “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

Jules Tapper is a retired but current pilot in the Queenstown/Fiordland area, flying fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in the region for 60 years. An aircraft owner, operator and manager of three aviation companies, he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010 for services to the aviation and tourism industries