Opinion: We need growth – but there’s a limit

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In recent weeks there has been considerable discussion around the subject of visitor and population growth within the district.

Much of this has been sparked by Queenstown Airport’s consultation process relating to extended noise boundaries. While we are justifiably proud of the beauty and attractiveness of our district, and acknowledge ourselves as the country’s premier visitor destination, it is inevitable that this will create strong visitor interest, particularly in the middle of a worldwide boom in tourist activity.

Our community, like many others around the globe, is justifiably concerned at the effects of this success, and it is a topic that does need ongoing review. However, debate on this subject needs to be well-informed and objective. Council has a strong understanding of the growth challenge and is responding through a variety of strategies, programmes and masterplans. All of this is worthy of some comment.

In respect to the airport noise consultation, council and councillors were very careful not to get involved in the preliminary consultation undertaken by the airport. As both the majority owner of the airport, and environmental regulator and community guardian, council wears a number of hats. It was important at this early part of the process that council did not prejudice any of its roles and responsibilities. A challenging position to be in.

The exercise demonstrated the airport was genuinely willing to consult, and that the community could have effective input. Ultimately, what I can say is that I support the airport company’s decision to give further consideration to its options in the context of the wider impact of growth.

On the matter of growth, I acknowledge that double-digit percentage increases in visitor numbers and residential growth has started to change the way we experience some things. As long as overseas markets are buoyant and growing, we will continue to be a desirable destination. Our challenge is to ensure we don’t degrade the experience for our local community or for visitors.

It’s also important to remember that growth is not simply visitor-driven. We continue to have record numbers of new houses being built. A growing economy also leads to increased investment in employment, education, medical services, retail and community activity. Enhanced transport and digital connectivity continue to make the district an increasingly popular place to live, work and play in, and we need to ensure we effectively manage that popularity.

I have heard, however, some talk of stopping growth, full stop. I think that would be a very short-sighted view to take. If visitor numbers were to remain static there would be no new investment in the town and eventually our facilities would deteriorate badly. Likewise, it needs to be remembered that everyone employed or in business in the district, directly or indirectly derives their income from the tourism industry. It is our lifeblood and it would be dangerous to consider forcibly curtailing any further growth.

Instead I favour policies which will see our visitor numbers grow annually at a rate of somewhere between say 2 per cent to 4 per cent per annum. This would enable us to catch up on underspend on infrastructure and ensure the visitor experience remains an excellent one. Of course it also goes without saying that to improve our infrastructure, we do need the visitor levy I’ve been pushing hard to obtain.

I also support Destination Queenstown CEO Graham Budd’s call for yield to be a driver – not just numbers. His aim is to see spend grow at double the rate of numbers growth.

In reality, there is no one mechanism for stopping growth but there is much we can do to ensure that growth does not compromise our landscapes, our community and the liveability of life in the Lakes District. The visioning exercise led by council that looks beyond 2050 has this challenge as one of its principal concerns. Grappling with change and grappling with growth is not a new challenge for this community.

I said at the outset of my mayoralty that we were needing to play catch-up for a lack of investment in previous decades. We are clearly doing this and pushing partner agencies such as NZTA, ORC and central government to invest in the district. Our district plan review and masterplanning exercises are planning to manage growth while we are doing new work in the areas of economic, social and community development. The recent Ten Year Plan’s significant lift in new infrastr-ucture investment also reflects council’s commitment to ensure we are well placed to handle forecast demand.

I can offer an assurance that council is tackling the growth challenge head-on in every department throughout the organisation, mostly visibly through programmes such as the Queenstown, Frankton and Wanaka Town Centre Masterplans. You’ll hear more about these many programmes in the coming months.

Finally, for now, it’s sometimes a valuable exercise to see ourselves as others see us. Earlier in the week I received an unsolicited email from a resident of Hawaii and I’ll end with a quote from that: “I was recently in Queenstown with my family for two weeks. It was my third time to the greater Queenstown Lakes District area and I can’t wait to get back. As a long-time resident of tourist mecca Hawaii, working closely with tourism, parks department, events and local communities here, I cannot begin to express how impressed I am with every visit I make to Queenstown. Its infrastructure, cleanliness, world-class facilities and upkeep thereof are mind-boggling. The natural beauty of the area is perhaps only matched by the most wonderful local people I’ve met anywhere in the world – your citizens.”

Jim Boult is Queenstown’s mayor