Trampers on Avalanche Peak
Photo by Niamh Espiner

Outdoor recreation and COVID-19

New Zealanders are exploring our outdoors in greater numbers than before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Associate Professor Stephen Espiner leads Lincoln University’s Centre of Excellence: Sustainable Tourism for Regions, Communities and Landscapes

Preliminary findings from his collaborative research suggests one out of three people have increased their outdoor recreation since the lockdown.

“Getting outside has become more important to many people,” he says.

He and his colleagues Dr Emma Stewart, Dr Gebeyaw Degarege and Centre of Excellence Research Assistant Niamh Espiner are currently studying how COVID-19, and the resulting lockdown has affected New Zealanders’ outdoor recreation and domestic tourism. The hiatus in international tourists is a strong component of the research project.

Dr Espiner says we are only beginning to understand the implications of this change to tourism and travel. Alongside the significant losses and challenges, there may also be opportunities. Not least, the chance to take stock of and reimagine the outdoor recreation and tourism issues we faced before the pandemic.

Espiner and his team are currently surveying people on these issues. The full results of that survey and of in-depth qualitative interviews will be available early in the new year.  However, he was able to share some of the data available at this stage with us.

The survey confirms walking is a significant part of New Zealanders’ outdoor recreation. Outdoor walking and short walks were the top two surveyed outdoor recreation activities. During lockdown the longer walks dropped off but the short walks rose in popularity. Trail running and mountain biking were also popular. Post lockdown, longer walks returned to its top spot and the other three activities retained their popularity.

People also said they want to make the most of fewer people in natural spaces.

Sitting alongside that finding, most people surveyed said they were not looking forward to the return of international tourists to natural spaces. Many felt that some parts of New Zealand had become overrun.  

The Sustainable Tourism Centre of Excellence is looking at that sentiment to see if there is a better way that New Zealand can do tourism. The Centre is collaborating with a range of partners and stakeholders to see if they can all reimagine tourism that is more equitable, better distributed and has a kinder footprint on the environment. 

Dr Espiner says the project also investigates if there is any legacy effect from the government-imposed lockdown.

“Anecdotally we heard people were getting outdoors more, both in their immediate local setting and also heading for the hills, striking out to go camping or in a campervan.  And we weren’t sure if this data was being captured anywhere.”

Espiner says the winter school holidays in July surprised many people in the tourism sector. Domestic tourism to outdoor recreation areas was up significantly on previous years. And that trend appears to have continued.  

Tourism NZ (registration required) is anticipating another big bump over the summer from domestic tourism. Domestic tourism numbers are likely to be up 120 per cent of normal over the summer. International tourists probably will not be back during their usual busy window in February-March, but the domestic numbers are still encouraging.

88 per cent of people surveyed say they have visited a new place specifically for outdoor recreation since the lockdown ended. This suggests that people are looking around and trying new things. That may help redistribute tourism around the regions and away from some of those heavily used iconic tourism sites. 

However, as Espiner notes, getting to some of New Zealand’s iconic tourism spots is not easy for everyone. The lockdown highlighted many of the disparities in life such as jobs and housing. And one of those disparities was access to outdoor recreation. 

“Some people living at Piha Beach, for instance - or on the outskirts of Wellington’s regional parks, or the Port Hills of Christchurch - had wonderful outdoor recreation activities throughout lockdown. So long as they weren’t surfing! But other people may not have been so lucky.  What do they do – walk around the urban streets? So there was a real disparity and inequity,” says Espiner.

Part of the solution is better information about where and how to engage with local outdoor recreation opportunities. But there is also the problem of their actual physical locations. Many of our big conservation areas and tracks are hundreds of kilometres from where most people live. 

Espiner says the pandemic and the responses to it amplified those disparities. This is a theme that the project would like to explore. 

“Hopefully, this study will give a deeper sense of the significance of outdoor recreation opportunities,” says Espiner.  “We might be able to use it to support investment in infrastructure and information for New Zealanders.”

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Page last updated: Nov 3, 2020, 10:21 AM