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Queenstown Lakes District:
Building a Regenerative Visitor Economy

Proxima was hired by Destination Queenstown, Lake Wānaka Tourism and the Queenstown Lakes District Council to develop a regenerative destination management plan as a foundation for regenerative tourism in the district. Embedding 'regenerative' at the heart drove design of the engagement approach and strategy design.


In the wake of Covid-19, the visitor economy in regional New Zealand was largely focused on survival. It was a challenging time to launch a project for embedding regenerative tourism into a new Destination Management Plan (DMP) for the Queenstown Lakes District.

We believe the ambition and drive of the council and the two local tourism organisations (Destination Queenstown and Lake Wānaka Tourism) really sets a new benchmark for Aotearoa’s visitor economy planning. It is a valuable model for achieving the spirit of the New Zealand-Aotearoa Government Tourism Strategy.

We invite anyone with an interest in the future of tourism to look through Travel to a Thriving Future - Haereka whakamu ki to ao taurikura as a useful example of regenerative destination management planning.  Here, we share a few insights flowing out of the work and welcome any comments or feedback you have.

Understanding 'why' should come first

We believed that supporting a movement for regenerative tourism was fundamental. It meant reorienting the visitor economy as a positive force for environmental, social, cultural, and economic benefits. That’s a big mindset shift, and one that could shape evolution of the local visitor economy strategy for years to come.

Understanding what regenerative really means was crucial. It’s still a relatively new concept and, because it is not widely understood, needs to be translated into a more digestible message.

To help, we used Dan Barber’s brilliant and entertaining TED Talk: How I fell in love with a fish. This was a perfect story to help people get what was needed to reimagine the future of the visitor economy as being in service of something bigger. We talked about reciprocal relationships that create win-win-win outcomes through thoughtful and smart design.  People seemed to get it.

With hindsight, perhaps the project could have done more to enlarge the movement for regenerative tourism.  Yet the constraints of that particular time, with ongoing lockdowns, economic uncertainty and operator concerns about their survival, were a significant factor.

Co-creation and collaboration as cornerstones

Regenerative thinking starts at the local level.  The essence of each place, just like each person and each community, is unique.  And it is that essence, and its relationship with the living systems that express it, that a regenerative mindset must hold front and centre.  A fundamental enquiry was to identify the potential of bringing that essence forward in new ways, as a direct result of the way that the visitor economy is developed.

To tailor regenerative design to each place, we recommended place-based 'Design Forums' in Queenstown, Wānaka, Arrowtown, and Glenorchy. The forums explored the stories of place, their unique essence, history, and ecological context. Each Forum uncovered a deeper understanding of the unique personality of their place, and its relationship to visitor economy activities. Taken together, work from the Forums revealed underlying principles that were conditions for regeneration, and how we’d know it was happening.  These elements are all now captured at the front end of the DMP.

These principles provide a valuable set of criteria to guide, test and challenge decision-making. They hold the keys to regenerative thinking and accountability. 

Purpose as the foundation

All systems have a purpose; and the same is true of the visitor economy. What purpose should it actually serve?  If  the visitor economy didn’t exist, why would we create it? This question lies at the heart of solving the challenge about making the whole more than just the sum of its parts.

We wanted the community to agree on the purpose of the visitor economy. To provoke that discussion, throughout the project we asked this question:

"How can tourism and visitor activities be in service of and add value to the district, its living ecosystems, and communities in a way that also delivers appropriate and sufficient economic benefits?"

DMP purpose
DMP purpose 2
Co-designing with the community

Wide community participation was essential to build a movement around regenerative design; and to really understand how the visitor economy works. Over 60 interviews and eight community events allowed us to engage people from tourism, the environment, community services and other economic sectors. Given the emerging relationships between tangata whenua, the council and regional tourism organisations, those meetings were held leaders-to-leaders. 

Kāi Tahu values in Queenstown Lakes District

The Kāi Tahu values framework is integral to the destination management plan and seeks to deepen  understanding about the mana of tikaka, taoka and matauraka Māori (Māori knowledge, values and protocols).  There is a rich history of lived experience from the time of Waitaha - those people who descend directly from the Waitaha ancestor Rākaihautū, who landed in the great voyaging waka Uruao, near Whakatū (Nelson) in ancient times.  Right from the time of Waitaha arrival at Lake Hāwea, through to the start of the 20th Century Kāi Tahu Whānui have lived off the land, from the land, with the land and across the land from Ōtākou to the lakes – a relationship that is over 1000 years old.

Putting place at the heart of the visitor economy

By taking a place-based approach, we focused on the unique attributes of each locality and their complex relationships as parts of the visitor economy system; as well as with other community, environment, and cultural systems. From that, we were able to identify an overarching purpose, values, guiding principles and pathways to successful outcomes; all aligned with a future regenerative visitor economy.

One example that stood out to us was the notion, expressed now in the values that underlie the DMP, that the wellbeing of everyone is fundamental; because those who are least visible are an important indicator for the health of the whole community. Interestingly, we discovered afterwards, the Swiss constitution has a similar provision in its preamble stating that the strength of a people should be measured by the well-being of its weakest members.

Can a regenerative visitor economy blossom in Queenstown Lakes District?

The draft DMP has been well-received, and the concept of 'regenerative tourism' is now more widely understood. The language we adopted by shifting from ‘tourism’ to a ‘visitor economy’ also seems to have stuck as a more holistic and embracing term which includes visitors from within Aotearoa.

Proxima was well-positioned for this work as an independent third party. We could bring objectivity to challenging conversations. And, thanks to our breadth of experience in other sectors, we were able to inject sustainability understanding across a range of topics. This bolstered input from the sustainable-savvy operators based in the region who have already driven a wide range of sustainability initiatives.

We were incredibly grateful to Anna Pollock and Jerome Partington for their guidance on regenerative design approaches, and their peer review of the work. Sincere gratitude is also due to Destination Think! who provided peer review of the work from an international destination management perspective, introducing the ambitious Carbon Zero 2030 goal; co-designing the final iteration of the plan and continue to support with implementation of the plan.

We are excited about the future for the region, knowing that success can contribute to a larger global shift. Indeed, this was positioned as a core aspect of the purpose of, and vision for tourism in the district.

Top takeaways from our work

No project is perfect, and we know we can always improve.  What we learned from this work is what we take forward into future projects:

Could individual interviews have been more valuable as carefully constituted system conversations?
The 60 plus interviews were incredibly valuable, providing important insights into relationships between different parts of the visitor economy system.  In hindsight, these perspectives might have been more effective and efficient as carefully chosen groups to identify points of non-obvious leverage in the system. Those discussions might also have nurtured further commitment to action in those leverage areas. 


The collaborative process was powerful
Testing iterations of the plan with the three clients and independent advisory group added quite a bit of time and work, but was well worthwhile. Their knowledge, insights and passion ensured robust conversations which added real value to the thinking and DMP content.

Shifting mindsets takes time
When simply explained, people inherently understand the concepts underlying regenerative thinking; but they struggle to relate it to a business context. Sharing real examples is valuable but, again, some find it hard to see how they could apply the same approach. Labels like sustainability, circular-economy and regenerative can be unhelpful. Stories really helped. Looking to the future, what may be really powerful is a conscious focus on highlighting examples of truly good practice, setting higher expectations and providing practical support for those who do want to do more.  The March 2023 discussion paper about the roadmap to carbon zero by 2030 does a great job in this respect, with a whole chapter dedicated to potential solutions with examples from around the world.

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