It’s about time
It’s no secret that the future of my favourite bird watching place, ZEALANDIA, has been much in the news of late as the media and the public has debated its financial future and the proposal the Sanctuary Trust has put to the Wellington City Council for funding to get it through the current financial difficulties.
Fortunately this debate has elicited a considerable amount of public support for ZEALANDIA, with letters to the editor of the DomPost emphatic in their support.
But there have also been detractors, and it is they who I would like to specifically address in this blog.
Almost unanimously the detractors have written that ZEALANDIA is overpriced, and/or overrated – “offers little, boring, you don’t see much”. An incredible example is one correspondent who complained that they went to ZEALANDIA and “only saw birds”! Others who complain they saw nothing but bush and there’s “better bush elsewhere we can see for nothing.”
My analysis of the comments, and the visitor experience that prompted them, suggests that they largely stem from three basic problems.
One, some people have a misconception as to what Zealandia is. Their comments suggest they expected a zoo, with captive animals easy to view, including “more interesting” exotic animals (nothing but birds indeed!). They have no conception that the sanctuary is a wild valley with wild animals free to come and go (the birds at least), and that the “attractions” cannot be produced on demand for their entertainment.
Two, they misunderstand what ZEALANDIA is all about. One “helpful” critic suggested it would make more money if people were allowed to walk dogs in the sanctuary! Imagine the fate of the kiwi in the forest if that was allowed to happen. Another critic posted the only slightly less bizarre suggestion that the trails be opened up for mountain bikes! The concept of a 500-year journey back in time where walkers can experience something of the biology, and atmosphere, of pre-human Zealandia is lost on these folk (let alone the curiosity as to why dog walkers and mountain bikers would pay for access to the valley when they have free access to facilities created especially for them elsewhere).
Third (two related sub-points here), the modern preoccupation with instant gratification – “I want to be entertained, now!” – and the failure of many people to take the time a taonga like ZEALANDIA needs to be fully appreciated. This latter point is reinforced by my direct observations of visitor behaviour. Too many people charge around the valley at pace, completing the circuit from the visitor centre to the top dam and back in less than an hour, and then complain they didn’t see anything. While instant, time-short, gratification might be achieved at an amusement park, or even at a zoo (though I can’t imagine rushing around Wellington Zoo in less than an hour would be a particularly rewarding experience) a different approach is needed at ZEALANDIA.
An illustrative story here. I was photographing tui feeding on harakeke flowers when I heard a party of tourists approaching. I say heard because their presence was conveyed to me audibly a full five minutes before the hove into sight. They were walking very fast, chatting very loudly. As usual my camera attracted attention.
“Getting any good photos? We’ve hardly seen anything, bit of a waste of money really.”
Respectfully – I can be occasionally – I suggested they sit down, shut up, and watch the harakeke flowers in front of me. I guaranteed that within ten minutes they’d see a tui feeding. Mother nature smiled on me, it was only three minutes. They were entranced. Turns out the party had the whole afternoon to kill so I suggested they do the same visitor centre to top dam circuit again, this time slowly and quietly. I saw them again about 2 hours later. They still weren’t very quiet but this time it was delighted chatter.
“Oh, we saw bellbird and stitchbird and saddleback and kaka and fantail and tui and robin . . .” A totally different experience than their first time around.
This last problem is not unique to ZEALANDIA. Friends of mine own a garden park covering many hectares. Visitor feedback (which includes recording when people arrive and leave) shows that those who understood that a garden the size of half a farm would take a while to enjoy, and planned accordingly, thoroughly enjoyed their experience. The “been there, done that” visitors who whipped around in less than an hour were more likely to complain, say the garden wasn’t worth the admission price, and suggest the attraction was overrated.
This garden is an economically viable tourism success, suggesting that there is a market out there comprised of people who will not only pay to experience the beauty of nature, but also understand that time is needed to get the most value from their experience.
The issue, then, at ZEALANDIA is not the cost of entry, or even whether it can be a viable tourism attraction, but how to increase understanding of what type of attraction the sanctuary is, what the 500-year programme is all about, and that time is needed to extract real value from the experience. Get that right, and people with the right understanding and approach will comprise the majority of visitors, and the issue of admission price becomes far less problematic.
Having said that, I also believe the controversy over the admission price is one of perception rather than reality, especially as regards Wellington locals. Out-of-Wellington visitors seem not balk at the price, and locals can easily reduce their daily admission by purchasing a membership, which is the option I took.
By my reckoning, because I go to ZEALANDIA most weekends, I probably pay little more than a dollar a visit. Now, not everyone wants to go once a week, but even if someone wanted to go, say, quarterly to catch the change of the seasons, a full membership fee would represent a substantial discount. ZEALANDIA is an undoubted conservation success and is proving it has the ability to be a visitor success also. Numbers are going up and the new centre is starting to make a small profit. A little more support from the Wellington City Council, and all friends of conservation in New Zealand, and this national taonga will be around for our children’s children, and the 500 year vision will become a reality.
Now, if only I can work out a way to be around to see it!
Note: The pictures in this blog are just a few from a walk around the sanctuary (a little less than four hours) on Saturday 7 January 2012. The shots are a typical experience for someone walking slowly and taking time.