29 Jun 2016

DoC under 'significant pressure' over chopper landings on glaciers

4:44 pm on 29 June 2016

Tourism and aviation industries put the Department of Conservation under significant pressure to allow more helicopter landings on glacier and snow sites, according to official documents.

The department is allowing a trial to go ahead to increase the number of landings on the Fiordland National Park's most popular glacier site - the Ngapunatoru Plateau, also known as the Tutoko Glacier - to go from 14 a day to 80 a day.

The Ngapunatoru Ice Plateau and Mt Grave from the Pembroke Wilderness Area.

The Ngapunatoru plateau Photo: SUPPLIED/Colin Garnett

Documents given to Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), a group which represents trampers and mountaineers, say the department is under "significant pressure" to meet the growing demand for glacier landings, much of which is being driven by the Chinese market.

A January paper from the department titled Options for Addressing the Aircraft Industry Demands, which was circulated after a workshop with the aviation industry, said the aviation industry was experiencing rapid growth in the tourism sector, particularly with growing numbers of Chinese tourists.

"Consequently the department has come under significant pressure to work with the aviation industry to address pressures on snow and glacier landing sites."

The paper shows the department received advice that Chinese airline arrivals will be increasing from six to 20 landings per week immediately.

"It is understood that this market has a high expectation/demand for either viewing a glacier or having some type of snow landing experience."

The paper said the aviation industry asked the department to look at ways that would enable them to make the most of growing demand, with a side note that this reflected a greatly improved tourism environment which was "strongly supported by the present-day government".

"Should the department not enable changes to allow additional landings for the current concessionaires the aviation industry is likely to raise concerns with key ministers regarding this," the paper said. The Minister for Tourism is Prime Minister John Key.

Federated Mountain Clubs president Peter Wilson said consultation workshops had been held behind closed doors.

Mr Wilson said it was disturbing to see the extent of the collaboration - which he said was almost collusion - between the aviation industry and the Department of Conservation.

"You see the extent of the consultation that went on between the tourism industry and the department, and the sheer lack of consultation on the other side between mountaineers, trampers, recreationalists, the conservation boards themselves and even iwi such as Ngāi Tahu."

The documents showed the department came under significant pressure from the aviation industry to override existing national park management plans, and was also under pressure to do the same in other South Island National Parks, he said.

They also showed iwi and conservation boards were given only a week to respond to the department's decision to increase landings, and they were deeply unhappy about it.

The Department of Conservation refused to be interviewed but, in a statement from director of planning and permissions Marie Long, said it needed to balance the growing demands from tourism operators with the impact such landings could have on other users and the environment.

It would be monitoring the increased landings at the Fiordland site and would be conducting quarterly reports with stakeholders, which included iwi, conservation boards and outdoor users, it said.

Aviation New Zealand group vice-president Lloyd Matheson denied it had put pressure on the department.

It had been working with the department to address the tourism boom, he said. "I don't believe the operators have held a gun at anyone's head, I think we've worked logically with the department."

Mr Matheson said Chinese demand had compounded the issue, but it was not just the Chinese market because tourism has been strongly promoted, and with the increased influx of tourists helicopter operators could not currently provide for the demand to get to some of the snow spots.

"The Chinese love snow landings and each concessionaire over time have negotiated with the Department of Conservation for access to the park."

He said some operators had been given more landing allowances than others, and the workshops had been about getting more of an even playing field.