History and context
Kaikoura is a small coastal town located on New Zealand’s South Island, roughly 200km north of Christchurch. The arrival of European settlers to these Maori lands in the mid 1800’s led to the conversion of much of the surrounding area to farm land and the establishment of a shore-based whaling industry. This whaling industry employed local Maori fishermen to hunt sperm whales that were found in the deep submarine canyons relatively close to shore. By the 1920’s whale numbers had reduced so drastically that hunting them was no longer profitable, and in the 1960’s the last whaling stations in New Zealand were closed1. In the 1960’s and 70’s a recession caused economic hardship in the remote and isolated area of Kaikoura. In the 1980’s, various stakeholders agreed to try and promote tourism in the picturesque town of roughly 2000 inhabitants as a means to stimulate the local economy. Many saw the area’s local marine wildlife – most notably its whales, dolphins and seals - as the lure that would attract tourists to the remote area.
In 1987 five local Maori families mortgaged their houses and put up their cars as collateral for loans in order to found a whale watching business that would focus on observation of sperm whales in the nearshore submarine canyons1. A feasibility study was conducted with support from the Marlborough Development Board, and the Department of Conservation granted the fledgling business a concession to engage in whale watching activities. The first tours were offered in July 1989. Maori traditionally have a strong connection to the natural world, captured by the word kaitiakitanga, which expresses the Maori concept of human’s role as guardians and protectors of the environment2. Building on the strong values of sustainability that are inherent to Maori culture and tradition, one of the first Maori owned whale watching businesses in Kaikoura determined that all of their activities must be: 1) culturally acceptable; 2) economically viable; and 3) environmentally sustainable1.
Almost simultaneously, another tour operator began to offer general marine wildlife tours which later honed in on the area’s acrobatic dusky dolphins as a target for swim with dolphin tourism3. Both the whale and dolphin watching tours were immensely successful, growing at an estimated 14% per year, until in by 2006 they were attracting roughly 1 million tourists per year, and generating an estimated 28 million NZ dollars (just under 20 million USD) per year 1. The increased tourism to Kaikoura created more jobs, not only for those who were directly employed by tour operators, hotels, or restaurants – but for every five full time equivalent jobs created by tourism, one full time equivalent job was created in another sector. From 2006 onward roughly 30% of Kaikoura’s economy was based on tourism1, although from November 2016, a strong earthquake rendered the area inaccessible for almost a year, seriously affecting tourism numbers.
By the mid 1990’s there was concern that the annual number of tourists was outstripping Kaikoura’s infrastructure. The Central government funded the drafting of a comprehensive tourism plan for the area, and local stakeholders and planners took the opportunity to ensure that this plan would be based on principles of sustainability. They engaged with Green Globe, and later Earthcheck, to obtain environmental benchmarking certification of Kaikoura’s tourism. Planning for the next phase of tourism included better waste and energy management, enhancement of tourist amenities, and broader community engagement and development. In 2002 Kaikoura became the world’s first local government to obtain certification as a GreenGlobe21 Gold destination1.
As of 2006, over 1 million tourists per year were visiting Kaikoura, with a large majority of those staying for more than a few hours citing marine mammal tourism as their main motivation for visiting the area1. In addition to the economic benefits that whale watching brings to the community, at least one of the tour operators in Kaikoura aims to improve the quality of lives and the environmental awareness of local community members as well. The company provides work experience for students from the high school and the Centre for Continuing Education, donates money to local schools, and offers reduced rates to schools and community groups to participate in whale watching4.