New Zealand’s Chatham Islands is likely to be the one place on the planet experiencing overtourism proper now
(CNN) – The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the travel industry as hotels, restaurants and airlines in destinations around the world go broke or drastically cut costs if they try to survive.
But there is one place on the planet where there are too many tourists right now: the Chatham Islands.
Haven’t you heard from them yet? It’s okay; you are not the only one.
The remote archipelago of the Pacific Ocean near the international date line technically belongs to New Zealand.And with New Zealand’s borders largely closed and with local residents advised not to travel overseas at this time, the Chathams – about 500 miles east of the country’s South Island – have become the hottest haven of 2020 for kiwis.
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In a typical year, the Chathams – the two main islands of which are Chatham Island and Pitt Island – attract about 2,000 tourists. This is equivalent to about 700 full-time residents, most of whom live on Chatham Island, most of the archipelago.
But 2020 is not a typical year.
The remoteness of the Chathams usually makes them a part of the country New Zealanders never visit. Now that seclusion is beneficial as travel-hungry kiwis turn to the islands to feel like they are on a vacation away from home without quarantining or taking a Covid test.
“It went pretty quickly,” says Jackie Gurden, the islands’ tourism manager, explaining the growth in tourism in the Chathams. “It’s a bit more expensive to get out of here so young people aren’t looking for a cheap vacation, and there are no beach resorts or anything.”
But as the pandemic kept international borders closed, Tourism New Zealand – the country’s official national tourism agency – had to move from marketing their land to overseas tourists to promoting domestic travel. That suddenly made the normally sleepy Chathams a hot commodity.
However, the demand far exceeds the supply. Gurden estimates that the islands have 150 beds in a mix of hotels, lodges, guest houses, and local residences, which are listed on sites like Airbnb. Most of the properties are privately owned and camping is prohibited.
The only airline serving the archipelago is Air Chathams, which operates only a handful of flights a week between Chatham Island and what the locals refer to as the “mainland”. (Side note: Most kiwis only mean the South Island when they say “mainland,” but for Chathamites, both the North and South Islands fall under this category.)
Geologists and archaeologists visit the Chathams to examine their unusual rock formations.
The tourist season usually lasts from around November to March, summer in the southern hemisphere. But now all accommodations on the island are fully booked until June 2021. Even Gurden, who lives on New Zealand’s North Island, isn’t sure if she’ll find a place to crash the next time she visits.
What to do there
In the past, most of the visitors to the Chathams were elderly travelers looking for a quiet place to get away from it all. Prices can be high as there is a lot of food and fuel to be shipped from mainland New Zealand.
But once you get there the beautiful scenery is well worth the trip.
Pitt Island is believed to be the first inhabited place in the world where the sun rises every day. The Chathams were the easternmost stretch of the Gondwanaland supercontinent, which means there is a fascinating array of terrain to choose from, including basalt columns a la Giant’s Causeway and volcanic cones.
The islands are also home to some of the rarest birds in the world. There is also a large and delightful seal colony.
Little Blue Penguins, the smallest species of penguin in the world, can be found here.
What do we do now?
Before she was the islands tourism manager, Gurden was asked to work on an advisory project for the future of the local hotel industry – although no one could have guessed how quickly some of these initiatives would be tested. Fortunately, some of these projects included the islands tourism website and official brochure, which got into the hands of potential visitors just in time.
In some ways, a surge in tourism is a big plus for the islands, where most of the people work in agriculture or fishing, and the lack of a high school sends teenage students to Christchurch.
The islands have also received a grant from the New Zealand government to help with infrastructure projects such as public toilets and airport updates. Even without a pandemic, 2020 was the time of the Chathams to shine.
“It’s not about driving growth, it’s about controlling growth,” explains Gurden. “Tourism has to grow in order to create jobs for young people. Young islanders can actually have a future on the island.”
Even so, she warns potential visitors to respect the fragile ecosystem and small town feel that makes the Chathams so special in the first place.
“There is resistance on the island to tourists who come into your room,” she says. “Tourism is about coming and taking, but we made sure there was a way to give back.”
That means tour operators will give the Chathams $ 25 per traveler, who will use the money to fund projects that will benefit locals, such as building a swimming pool.