Piopiotahi/Milford Sound, once described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth Wonder of the World, is known for its spectacular and ethereal beauty. However, without intervention, this breath-taking environment is on the brink of irreversible damage caused by more than one million visitors each year.

Increasing visitor numbers have put incredible pressure on conservation and the limited infrastructure in and around the remote Piopiotahi. For an environment promoted as pristine, the reality of the experience can be jarring; congestion at key sites, crowding at peak times and inadequate visitor infrastructure including car parking, bus services and electricity.

WSP’s Catherine Hamilton says this has resulted in an increasingly suboptimal visitor experience that is far from the marketed expectation, undermining the reputation of Milford Sound and New Zealand.

“This ancient and iconic landscape has become a budget day trip that’s bursting at the seams. It’s compromised the natural tranquillity of Piopiotahi and impacted the wilderness areas and marine environment.”

In response the Milford Opportunity Project (MOP) was established in 2017 to look at sustainable ways of managing the tourism impact and preserving the majestic environment.

Created by the Southland District Council, the MOP group includes Ngāi Tahu, various local councils, New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), the Ministry for Business, Employment and Innovation (MBIE) and the Department of Conservation (DOC).

A team from WSP delivered the MOP Master Plan and Catherine played a pivotal role in defining  the vision, values and outline. The Master Plan is founded on seven key pillars that weave the importance of people and place with visitor experience.

“We want visitors to Piopiotahi to have a world-class experience that fits with the unique natural environment and rich cultural values of the region. It should feel untouched and allow them to feel the true essence, beauty and wonder of Piopiotahi and Murihiku/Southland, through curated story-telling, sympathetic infrastructure and wide choices suited to multi-day experiences.”

Specific initiatives will be activated in the next phase of the project, which is one of the first to be funded by the International Visitor Levy. Introduced in July 2019, most international visitors entering New Zealand will be charged a levy of $35 that will be invested in sustainable tourism and conservation projects.

Catherine says MOP is a once in a lifetime chance to create and define the visitor experience, one that’s rooted in sustainable principals, with māna whenua values woven through. In turn, an improved visitor experience will become a catalyst for funding conservation growth and community prosperity throughout the region. Another key area of focus is to ensure that activities and infrastructure are adaptive and resilient to change and risk, such as avalanche and flood risks.

“Through delivering this plan we developed a deeper passion and personal connection with the landscape and its people. We were inspired to find creative solutions to ensure that Piopiotahi/Milford Sound would continue to reflect Aotearoa New Zealand as it was, forever.”

Catherine Hamilton, Technical Principal Landscape Architect, has delivered a large body of work over her long career as a landscape architect and continues to build her portfolio across design and planning. She has received numerous national and international awards for her designs and is recognised by her peers as an industry leader.