Climate change and glacier tourism in New Zealand: Past, present and future (?)

Wilson, Judith
Purdie, H.
Espiner, Stephen R.
Stewart, Emma
Conference Contribution - published
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The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers of South Westland, New Zealand have attracted tourists since the late 1800s and the region’s first tourist hostel opened in 1897 (McCormack, 1999). By the mid-1920s, walking tracks had been built to take visitors (on) to the glaciers and to various glacier viewpoints, and a network of huts was established to facilitate mountaineering excursions for those who wished to venture further. However, the limitations of the wider regional infrastructure, including poor roads and the absence of a southern route beyond the glaciers, kept visitor numbers low. McCormack (1999) reports 2000 annual visitors to Franz Josef Glacier in 1930, increasing to 5000 by 1947. Today, the glaciers are a key destination on the popular South Island touring route and attract an estimated 500,000 visitors each year (Wilson, et al., 2014). The glaciers are easily accessed from the nearby tourist villages. There are (free) glacier viewpoints close to the terminal face of each glacier and commercial companies offer scenic flights (many with a glacier landing) and guided hikes on the glaciers themselves. However, a period of accelerated glacier recession has significantly changed (and is continuing to change) the visitor experience. In addition to glacier retreat (i.e., shortening in length), the ice has also thinned significantly in the lower reaches and rockfall, from the surrounding exposed valley slopes, has increased the amount of debris on the ice. A mixed-methodology (incorporating scientific data, in-depth interviews with tourism stakeholders and a visitor survey) facilitated an examination of climate change impacts at the glaciers across three perspectives: the physical changes in the glaciers; challenges for destination management and tourism business operators; and, impacts on visitor experience. Findings indicate that while, historically, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are highly dynamic the current rate of retreat is unprecedented. The safety issues inherent in the provision of glacier access are exacerbated by the recent retreat and have brought significant changes to the glacier tourism experiences and products available to visitors. When asked to reflect on the future of glacier tourism, stakeholders were positive, quick to mention the capacity of the community to adapt to change as evidenced by a long history of tourism and change at the glaciers. For the 500 visitors surveyed, many of whom were at the glaciers for the first time, theserecent changes (both physical and touristic) were less obvious, but still impacted on their glacier experiences in a variety of ways. While visitors appreciated the free and easy access to glacier viewpoints, many had expectations of getting closer to the glacier and of seeing a bigger and cleaner glacier. Almost a third reported that the images of the glaciers they had seen prior to visiting were inaccurate. The survey also reinforced the importance of the glaciers for tourism at the destination, with almost half indicating that they would not have visited the region if they thought they might not be able to see the glaciers. In the face of ongoing (climate) change impacts at the glaciers this research suggests an uncertain future for this glacier tourism destination.
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