Lou Sanson has always been at one with nature, growing up "all over the hills" and working tirelessly to preserve New Zealand’s pristine natural wonders, remarkable landscapes attracting millions of visitors every year.
So it comes as an extraordinary surprise to hear the Director General of the country’s Department of Conservation (DOC) speculate that COVID-19, the very culprit that left its NZ$40 billion (A$37.5 billion) tourism industry reeling, may indeed be responsible for ultimately saving it.
"Tourism is extremely important to New Zealand’s economy, our workforce and who we are as Kiwis – connecting us to our natural and cultural heritage. While I acknowledge the huge suffering inflicted on the industry, I think ours will ultimately be an optimistic COVID story," says Lou.
"There is a silver lining." In March, to save lives and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, New Zealand closed its doors to international visitors – of which 3.89 million were recorded last year – while more than 1,200 DOC huts, camp sites and lodges scattered in iconic conservation areas such as Milford Sound and Tongariro Alpine Crossing were also closed to domestic tourists.
"There’s no doubt COVID absolutely decimated our tourism industry, but it’s also given us the opportunity to reset," Lou explains.
"Back in February, DOC was struggling to keep up with the growth of tourism, with everything our visitors do tending to be related to our unique wildlife, forests, waters and Great Walks. Our opportunity now is to look at how we can support a thriving tourism industry that cherishes and gives back to the awesome nature and cultural heritage it is dependent on.
"Visitors walking the Milford Track alone has grown 62% over the past five years with year-on-year growth between eight and 12%. It’s been incredibly hard maintaining our high standard of visitor experience as well as keeping up with car parks, toilets and other facilities."
It’s estimated that more than five million people will visit New Zealand in 2025, a number that equals its population and a forecast triggering the release of a more sustainable tourism strategy that includes overseas visitors, excluding Australians and Pacific Islanders, paying an entry levy that will be invested in sustainable tourism and conservation projects.
"We want to move New Zealand up the value chain," Lou says. "We offer an incredible tourism experience and we expect international visitors to give back to Aotearoa [the Maori name for New Zealand] while they are here.
There’s something distinct about our culture that can’t be separated from our environment.
"Meanwhile, New Zealand’s closure because of the coronavirus has offered us breathing space. The 2020 government budget delivers more than NZ$1 billion (A$937 million) to improve the environment by employing 11,000 people displaced by COVID-19. DOC’s focus is to support New Zealand’s recovery through providing conservation jobs to protect and enhance ecosystems and species, and get tracks and facilities into fantastic shape so we can emerge from this stronger with an even better product."
Lou’s deep love for nature was developed exploring the southern alps, rivers, mountains and lakes surrounding his home in Hokitika, a small town nestled on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
With a degree in Forestry Science, he’s enjoyed roles at the Southland Conservancy, NZ Forest Service, DSIR Antarctic Division and the New Zealand Wildlife Service, and spent 11 years as Chief Executive of Antarctica New Zealand before joining DOC in 2013.
"My work with the Antarctic program proved how relevant environmental science is to conservation management and policy, and to have the opportunity to bring that experience to the Department of Conservation was an absolute no-brainer."
Science aside, Lou believes nature is embedded in the DNA of New Zealanders, not just because most grew up surrounded by it, but because of the Treaty Partnership shared with the indigenous population who don’t believe in land ownership but rather ‘collective’ land.
"Maori philosophy is that the power of life comes from nature, you don’t own it, nature owns you and if you nurture nature, it will nurture you. There’s something distinct about our culture that can’t be separated from our environment. It’s who we are, it’s embedded in our DNA. The connection of people to nature and hearing nature, it’s so essential to our national identity, and that’s what I love about my job."
Lou says the enthusiasm from corporates that have partnered with DOC and "thrown themselves" into environmental projects has been a wonderful insight. Since 2013, choosing from its Colours of NZ range, Dulux has used its Weathershield and Maxiflex technology to protect DOC huts and historic buildings, while construction and roadwork company Fulton Hogan has been instrumental in the Takahe Recovery Programme, which has increased the flightless bird population to a record high of more than 400.
However, the biggest project undertaken by DOC has involved all New Zealanders. The Predator Free 2050 program, established in 2015, aims to eradicate all introduced predators such as possums, stoats, rats, ferrets and feral cats by 2050.
These killers threaten more than 4,000 native species – the highest proportion in the world – including 90% of native seabirds, 84% of reptiles, 76% of freshwater fish and 74% of terrestrial birds.
In response, individuals, community organisations and businesses have banded together to use specifically designed traps to catch and eradicate them. "No country on Earth is taking on an initiative this big," Lou says.
"Europeans brought in these predators and their impact has been devastating. Eradicating them and reintroducing our own species is our legacy to our grandchildren." While Lou regards his country as the "best in the world" he also travels to appreciate the beauty offered elsewhere.
Usually joining a group of mates, he hikes, ski tours and dives in remote havens, often only accessible by helicopter or four-wheel drive, and found in locations including Alaska, Patagonia and Costa Rica. "My stimulus always comes from nature," he reflects. "Sometimes it’s very hard to work out the boundaries between work and play."
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