Less is more 

Nelson Tasman’s innovative zero carbon itinerary allows travellers to do good things while supporting good businesses.


It’s very clear that the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and our ongoing over-consumption is having a major impact on the environment. So is it possible to visit new places and experience new things while treading more lightly? Gisela Purcell thinks she has found a way to do it: the Nelson Tasman zero-carbon itinerary.

When she was working at the Nelson Regional Development Agency (NRDA), she discovered that Alborn Enterprises, which operates a number of businesses in and around the Abel Tasman National Park, was the first tourism operator in the region to gain carbon zero accreditation. Around the same time, Skydive Abel Tasman also got its carbon zero certification.

After running some workshops to show local businesses how easy it was to calculate and then offset all their carbon emissions (carbon zero) or offset 120% of their carbon emissions (carbon positive) they had 10 or 12 tourism businesses involved.

“We realised that you could have a holiday only visiting zero carbon or carbon positive certified businesses. You could stay in beautiful accommodation, do amazing activities, eat and drink.

The missing link was that people still had to travel to the region (which can be offset by individual travellers through the airline) and then travel around when they were there.

“We don’t have great public transport, so that’s where [the NRDA] said that we’ll offset that travel around the region if people tell us they’ve done a holiday focusing on zero carbon businesses. We’ve calculated that if you went to all those businesses on the itinerary, it would be 165 kilometres, so we offset that distance, based on driving a two litre petrol vehicle, even if they’re driving an EV.”

Purcell acknowledges that carbon is just one element of sustainability, but it’s a significant and measurable part (the local businesses work with certifiers Toitu and Ekos).

“Third-party verification is important for this. It’s quantifiable so it’s not just businesses talking about how environmentally friendly they are.”

While Purcell doesn’t think offsetting is the perfect answer, she says it’s the best option we have at the moment if people still want to have holidays.

“With climate change, a lot of people feel overwhelmed, like you have to sit at home twiddling your thumbs if you want to save the planet, but what I love about this is you can do good stuff with businesses that are doing good stuff for the planet. They’ve prioritised this, so they’re worth supporting.”

For example, Alborn Enterprises has to use fuel for its water taxi businesses, which it offsets, but it is always looking for more efficient engines and is open to new alternatives that would reduce those emissions, and a lot of the other activities it offers are naturally low carbon.

Skydive Abel Tasman is not what you’d naturally see as a low-carbon business. “But they decided to reduce emissions around every other part of the business and offset the bits that they can’t remove,” says Purcell. “It’s an interim solution, but that’s no excuse not to do something on the ground now.”

She also believes the offsetting that’s done is “really ethical”.

“It’s native forest, new plantations, trees that wouldn’t be planted without these credits.”

Ekos, which the NRDA works with, plants trees in the Uruwhenua Forest in Golden Bay.

“It’s cool that we’re offsetting in a local forest that visitors will be able to walk through in the future. I would love to see projects like that in every region in the country. And that’s one of the barriers to going carbon zero. A lot of businesses want the planting to be in their region.”

Purcell says local community pushback against tourism before COVID-19 was around perceived damage to the environment, so planting trees is one way to show the community that tourism is giving back.

“That is so important. New Zealand is famous for being so welcoming. We want to retain that and we want our locals to enjoy visitors coming, but they’ll only feel that way if they know those businesses are contributing to the environment as well as the economy.”

COVID-19 has been extremely difficult for a lot of tourism operators, but one thing it did provide was a bit more time to think about the long-term.

“Abel Tasman Sailing, Abel Tasman Canyoning and Wine, Art and Wilderness got their carbon zero certification during the first lockdown. Even though their businesses were crumbling around them and they didn’t know when it would end, they went out and did this positive, forward-thinking thing for themselves and the community, so I take my hat off to them.”

There are now 25 businesses involved, and they’re from right across the spectrum, whether it’s the luxury Owen River Lodge near Murchison or the YHA in central Nelson. If you’re up for a climate positive beer, you’re in luck, because The Mussel Inn near Collingwood and The Freehouse in Nelson check that box.

“I think visitors in the future will seek these kinds of businesses out.”

Given the carbon intensity of international air travel, she thinks those who fly all the way to New Zealand are increasingly likely to try and have the greenest possible holiday when they’re here.

“Europe has moved ahead a long way in this regard and I think they will expect some of those options.”

Added to that, because the price of carbon continues to increase and as the government looks likely to mandate some form of carbon accounting for businesses, there is both a financial and moral incentive for businesses to reduce emissions.

“We’ve got to make sure the visitor sector does its bit to reach our climate goals,” she says. “People who own tourism businesses here are not in a get rich quick scheme. Their motivation is to share the beauty of an area they love. But without a healthy environment we won’t have a tourism industry, so it really makes sense to look after those assets for our locals while attracting visitors.”

Purcell’s hope is that the Nelson Tasman zero carbon itinerary will provide inspiration for other regions – and eventually for the country as a whole – and that’s what she’s trying to achieve in a new role with Tourism Industry Aotearoa.

“Maybe it’s a zero carbon high-end itinerary, or a zero carbon family itinerary … We’re really trying to normalise this. It’s not just for greenies. It’s for everyone who’s thinking about their impact.”

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