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Franz Josef gondola could phase out heli flights

Photo: Skyline Enterprises

If you’ve ever been to Franz Josef Glacier in the peak of tourist season, you’ll recall the throngs of visitors on the trail and nearly constant buzz of helicopters overhead. But that could change soon; tourist company Skyline Enterprises is proposing building a gondola that would give tourists a closer view of the glacier.

The company is launching a study to understand the environmental impacts and technical and economic feasibility of gondola construction. Skyline Enterprises Chairman Mark Quickfall said the idea for a gondola was first raised in the 1980s, but only became a real potentiality recently.

“What’s changed since then is that you can no longer access the glacier by foot – you have to fly in,” Quickfall said, adding that technological advances make it more feasible.

“When the face of the glacier collapsed in 2012 and foot access was no longer an option, we recognised there are a lot of people missing out. Despite the fact that we operate the helicopters, weather’s not always favourable.”

The biggest issue, Quickfall said, will be the visual impact of a gondola. While it’s too early to tell exactly where the path of the gondola would be built, he envisions it following the path of the ridges on either side of the glacier. Quickfall said they’re looking at the possibility of a viewing platform at the top; aerial mapping will help the company sketch out a more complete picture of how best to construct it.

The proposal is drawing some initial positive feedback, Quickfall said, particularly from tourist operators in Franz Josef who foresee it drawing even more visitors to the area.

The Federated Mountain Clubs president Peter Wilson said he sees both benefits and drawbacks of the proposal.

“In most cases, developments such as this are inappropriate and inconsistent with the preservation of nature, for nature’s sake, within national parks,” Wilson said. However, he recognised the benefits of providing additional public access to the glacier.

“At a minimum, the gondola proposal needs to re-enable foot access to the glacier, and to phase out unnecessary helicopter flights,” Wilson said.

As part of its feasibility investigation, Skyline will consult with iwi, councils and recreational users.

The current Westland National Park Management Plan doesn’t allow for such a structure to be built, but there will be a review later this year in order to consider changes and amendments to the plan. Public comments regarding the review will be accepted until October 21.

“Usually, the answer would be no to developments like this, but given climate change, the importance of Franz Josef to Westland, and its long history of public access and guiding, there is a case for the amenity area and gondola,” Wilson said. “It would allow us to phase out helicopter flights in favour of a much more environmentally friendly mode of transport.”