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New Zealand’s Green Tourism Push Clashes With Realities — NY Times & IHT


A version of this article appeared in print on November 17, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune. Read the full article in the New York Times.

The scene is set: a giant countdown clock, a 1,500-foot red carpet and assurances from the New Zealand government’s tourism arm that the South Pacific nation will once again become the real Middle Earth.

As the Wellington premiere of “The Hobbit” approaches, New Zealand’s picturesque landscapes are set to take center stage once again. Ten years ago, the breathtaking vistas featured in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy were at the heart of a tourism campaign that helped jump-start a multibillion-dollar international travel industry and a worldwide image of the country’s clean, green living. It was what Tourism New Zealand, the country’s tourism agency, called “100% pure” New Zealand.

But while the spectacular and seemingly untarnished natural backdrops, stunning waterscapes and snow-tipped mountains might look world-class on film, critics say the realm New Zealand’s marketers have presented is as fantastical as dragons and wizards.

“There are almost two worlds in New Zealand,” said Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in environmental science at Massey University in Palmerston North. “There is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality.”

The clean and green image has long been promoted by the isolated country in its striving to compete in world markets. But an an international study in the journal PLoS One measuring countries’ loss of native vegetation, native habitat, number of endangered species and water quality showed that per capita, New Zealand was 18th worst out of 189 nations when it came to preserving its natural surroundings.

Dr. Joy said that for a country purporting to be so pure, New Zealand seemed to be failing by many international environmental benchmarks.

Last month, the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment released a survey showing that more than half of the country’s freshwater recreational sites were unsafe to swim in. Fecal contamination of waterways, caused largely by dairy farming — the source of 13.9 billion New Zealand dollars, or $10 billion, in annual exports, nearly a quarter of New Zealand’s total — was widespread.

The survey showed that people who swam in those rivers were at a high risk of illness, including serious diseases like giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis and campylobacteriosis. The waterways were the cause of 18,000 to 34,000 cases of waterborne disease each year.

Eugenie Sage, a member of the New Zealand Parliament who is environment spokeswoman for the Green Party, said the results belied the “100% pure” marketing image.

“We promote our country as 100 percent pure and 100 percent Middle Earth,” she told Parliament in October. “But to swim in our rivers, which is the birthright of Kiwi kids — you cannot do it in the majority of the rivers that the Ministry for the Environment monitored.”

Before the Nov. 28 release of the first of three “Hobbit” films by Mr. Jackson — the movies are based on a book by J.R.R. Tolkien, also the author of “The Lord of the Rings” — Prime Minister John Key has been courting more international tourism.

This year in Japan, Mr. Key introduced a “100% Middle Earth” campaign to attract tourists from that country. In September, he made an official trip to Los Angeles to woo the film and tourism industries.

The “Lord of the Rings” films were a boon for New Zealand, attracting more than 20,000 people a year to the country and pouring an estimated 700 million dollars into the economy in 2004 alone.

International tourist spending almost doubled, from 3.1 billion dollars in 1999, when filming of the “Lord of the Rings” began in the country, to 6 billion dollars at the end of 2004, a year after the final installment of the trilogy made its debut. By 2011, however, the number had tapered off to 5.6 billion dollars, according to statistics from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Although the government has not projected any numbers for the “Hobbit” trilogy, it was desperate to keep the filming in New Zealand and repeat the success of “Lord of the Rings.” After a dispute with the New Zealand actors’ union, the government even changed labor legislation to clarify how actors were seen under the law. It also offered the Hollywood studio Warner Brothers an extra $25 million in tax breaks on top of its basic 15 percent subsidy as a sweetener.

The investment seems to have paid off. Research conducted by Tourism New Zealand from May to July found that 57 percent of people already considering trips to New Zealand were aware of the “Hobbit” trilogy. Almost all in that group knew the films had been made there.

Martin Snedden, the head the Tourism Industry Association, a lobbying group, said in a news release that the Tolkien films showcased New Zealand’s “stunning landscapes” and raised awareness of the country around the world. “Unless travelers know we exist, we are never likely to get on their shopping list of potential destinations,” Mr. Snedden said.

But New Zealand’s reputation as a pristine place might not be exactly warranted. Since European colonization 150 years ago, as much as 90 percent of the country’s original wetlands have been drained to make way for towns, farms and roads. The wetlands are considered to be of international importance for supporting numerous species of birds, fish and plants.

For creatures like the black stilt, which lives in such places, it may be too late. There are only about 100 left, making it possibly the rarest wading bird in the world. It is just one species out of the 2,800 that the country’s Department of Conservation considers endangered.

In 2008, New Zealand ranked first among 146 countries in Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, which ranks countries on the quality of their environmental policies. The report compares international data on criteria like habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and protected marine areas.

In 2012, however, the country slipped to 14th. New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, half of which are caused by the agriculture industry, are the fifth-highest per capita among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the association of free-market democracies. Most other countries in the O.E.C.D. have managed to reduce per capita emissions, but New Zealand’s have increased 23 percent since 1990 — from about 66 million tons of carbon dioxide in 1990 to about 83 million tons in 2009, according to the country’s Environment Ministry.

Pure Advantage, a nonprofit group promoting green business, estimates that the country will overtake the United States in per capita emissions in less than eight years, putting it almost into the world’s top 10. But total emissions in New Zealand, which has a population of 4.4 million, are far lower than those of the United States, with 312 million people.

This month, New Zealand refused to commit to a second round of emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement on reduction of greenhouse gases. Instead, it will align with several of the world’s largest emitters, including the United States, China and India, in negotiating an alternative agreement. That could be approved by 2015 and in effect by 2020.

“This is a day of shame for New Zealand. Our reputation as a good international citizen has taken a massive hit,” Moana Mackey, a member of Parliament who is the climate change spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, said in a statement.

Bruce Willis, a farmer in the Hawke’s Bay region and president of the lobbying group Federated Farmers, said New Zealanders often saw themselves as “the very best at something or very worst.”

“When visitors look at our countryside and our waterways, they are struck by how free they are of plastic bottles and the detritus of modern life,” he said, adding that it was unfair to place most of the blame for environmental problems on the agriculture industry.

Mr. Willis said that the country could do better but that New Zealand farms were “way up there” in terms of environmental performance.

David Broome, the Federated Farmers’ spokesman, cited Yale’s index as showing that New Zealand ranked first in 2012 for the effect of water quality on human health. For effect on the ecosystem, however, the country ranked 43rd.

In the end, he said, the environmental picture is not black and white.

A recent report by Pure Advantage said New Zealand’s environmental record was worrying for the country’s economic future. One of New Zealand’s main priorities, it said, should be giving legitimacy to the “100% pure” branding.

“These rankings will come as a shock to those in New Zealand who believe our country prides itself on its clean, green image,” the report said.

Gregg Anderson, Tourism New Zealand’s general manager for Western long-haul markets, said from his Los Angeles office that he did not believe the campaign was misleading international tourists. “100% pure” was never just about the environment, he said. It was about a New Zealand experience.

“We put our hands on our hearts and say New Zealand does not have a completely untouched environment,” he said, “but we are better than most.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 17, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune. Read the full article in the New York Times.

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