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Milford Sound future under microscope

The number of cruise ship passengers in Milford Sound has broken broken records this year. Photo: Othree/Creative Commons

As Milford Sound experiences record growth, a group has formed to look at how the poster child of NZ tourism will cope.

The number of people visiting Milford Sound has nearly doubled in the past five years, reaching 857,769 last year, and visitor numbers are expected to top a million next year.

The Milford Opportunities Project includes representatives from DOC, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, NZTA, Ngai Tahu, Queenstown and Southland district councils and local tourism groups. The group is lead by independent chair Dr Keith Turner, who is also chair of Fisher & Paykel Appliances, deputy chair of Auckland International Airport, a director of Spark Infrastructure and Chorus and was CEO of Meridian Energy for nearly a decade.

Turner said the group is looking at how Milford Sound can be preserved to remain an iconic tourism destination.

“People don’t want to come and see thousands of other people, a lot of mess and wait in long queues,” Turner said. “The idea is to make sure we aren’t doing damage to the essential character and nature of the area.”

Turner said this was the first time all major stakeholders in Milford Sound had got together to coordinate a plan for the future.

“The problem is no one organisation has jurisdiction over Milford Sound, so there has been ad hoc decision making without a framework looking at the overall experience.

“We are laying down a plan for the next 30 to 50 years.”

As well as tourism boom, more people were choosing to hire vehicles and drive to Milford Sound, rather than take a tour bus, which was increasing the pressure on the World Heritage Area.

Turner wouldn’t be drawn on what options would be looked at to manage growth. But he wouldn’t rule out looking at alternative transport, such as a new tunnel or monorail. Previous proposals to build a tunnel or monorail from Glenorchy through to Milford Sound have drawn strong opposition and failed to get off the ground.

“We have to look at all the options. We are going in with a blank sheet of paper to look at how the access and experience is managed.”

The first phase of the project was to get information on the scale and nature of the growth. The governance group went on a fact-finding mission to Milford Sound in February.

“The experience was extremely different to my first experience there as a lad on a motorbike about 50 years ago,” Turner said.

“It could be a lot better than it is. It was pretty interesting to find a couple of cruise liners in sight of Mitre Peak. Is that what people come halfway around the world to experience?”

Turner said the group plans to release a report outlining its research in about six months.

The group has been funded by a $250,000 grant from the government as part of a $510,000 package to ‘help strengthen Southland’s tourism industry and attract more visitors to the region’.

Te Anau DOC operations manager Greg Lind said it’s been a record breaking season, with more people heading through the Homer Tunnel and higher numbers of cruise boat passengers than ever before. A ranger counted 300 people on Key Summit Track in less than two hours.