The issue of sustainable travel in New Zealand is a big one. We are in danger of over-tourism in some of the most beautiful parts of the country and because our natural beauty is what draws the crowds, this is also the area that takes a huge hit. But there are also issues of locals being priced out of parts of the country because of foreign investors or local businesses suffering in the wake of overseas tour companies or chains.
It’s thankfully very easy to travel sustainably in New Zealand and there are a tonne of resources and suggestions to help you do so. To us, sustainable travel is about leaving a place the way you found it, making sure profits go to local people and making sure our behaviour means these attractions and experiences will still be there (and just as beautiful) in 50 years.
Part of the charm (and inconvenience) of New Zealand is that it is so isolated meaning that although it’s a popular destination, numbers are much lower than they would be if it was cheap/easy to get to. It’s not hard to find secluded spots and things like wild camping, animal encounters and getting off the beaten path are all easily done without detrimental impact to the environment or local communities... if done respectfully.
So we’re not here to tell you to avoid these things, in fact do them! We spent the better part of our summer wild camping on the South Island. Just follow a basic code of conduct and be respectful of the rules set out by the Department of Conservation, they’re there for a reason. Dispose of rubbish responsibly, use a toilet, ask permission to go on private land and don’t disturb/feed the wildlife.
Being conscious and responsible doesn’t mean you can’t have fun! And there is so much fun to be had on the South Island. Check out these great experiences that are all ethical, sustainable and awesome!
See a Kiwi in the Wild
This is the ultimate of New Zealand experiences and one that many New Zealanders won’t even do in their lifetime. The iconic, flightless, nocturnal bird of New Zealand can be very illusive and it’s extremely difficult to coordinate a sighting. Your best chance is to head to Stewart Island where the number of kiwi outnumber people by about 40:1!
Kiwi are curious wee critters and may come up to you even during the day on Stewart Island. But make sure you are responsible; don’t feed or touch them, use a red light if searching for them at night and stay still and quiet so as not to disturb or frighten them.
Stay in a Tiny House
In terms of sustainability, tiny houses are a great model. They use far less energy and resources to build, heat and maintain and can be built in small spaces making maximum use of land. For a fun sustainable travel experience why not spend a night or two trying out a tiny house?
We stayed in a gorgeous 10m2 tiny house in Queenstown with some incredible views. It had everything we needed and was such a great accommodation option once we saw all of the horrendous development projects taking over Queenstown. For more info on this wee place check it out on Airbnb.
Sign up a new Airbnb account and get a 50 NZD discount on your first stay!
Hiking is the best free activity and the South Island offers opportunities in abundance! From coastal walkways to multi-day hikes through mountain passes there is something for every age and ability. The Department of Conservation website offers great information about walks in each area and is also the place to book huts or campsites for any of the overnight routes. For some of our favourite hikes on the South Island check out our article (coming soon).
Remember to take all rubbish with you, use toilets provided or dig a hole if you have to go in the bush, respect the wildlife and stick to the trails.
Swim with dolphins
The South Island offers some great opportunities to spot dolphins and in lots of places it’s easy enough to jump right in. Dolphins, particularly the Hector’s Dolphin, are really friendly and curious. Make sure you keep your distance and let them approach you but you’re likely to get a friend or two circling around if you get your timing right. Some of the best places to see dolphins are Kaikoura and Curio Bay in the Catlins. We also spotted some on Stewart Island and the West Coast.
Take a Cheese Making Tour
Yes, we managed to incorporate cheese into our sustainable travel experiences by taking a tour of the amazing Whitestone Cheese Factory in Oamaru. These guys make the most delicious selection of cheeses and source as many of their ingredients as possible from the area surrounding them. The milk comes from the farm down the road and the cheeses are packaged by hand (in recyclable packaging). The tour includes a history of the company, a factory tour and a cheese tasting with a free block to take with home! Book the tour here.
For the budget option head along to their factory store for a cheesy bargain and stage your own cheese tasting or check out their range available in most supermarkets. We love the halloumi for cooking and Vintage Blue and Airedale on crackers!
You can read more about Whitestone’s sustainability policies here.
Cycle the Otago Rail Trail
Get on your bike! Cycling is a super sustainable way to travel around and New Zealand is covered in great cycle trails. You can even cycle the entire length of the country on connected cycle routes. But one of the best places for cycling and seeing some of the country is the Otago Rail Trail.
A 150km trail which used to be, yip you guessed it, a railway line. Passing by historic sites, amazing views and through tunnels this trail stops each day in a quaint Central Otago town with lovely guesthouses and usually a good local pub. You can take as long as you like to do the trail but most people take 3-5 days. Bikes can be hired in most towns and it’s also an option just to do a day cycle with the most interesting stretch being between Lauder and Ida Valley.
New Zealand is home to some pretty interesting species of penguin and they can be seen returning to their nests at several points along the East Coast of the South Island. There are paid viewing areas in Oamaru and Dunedin but you can see them for free from several coastal areas including Oamaru, Timaru and Curio Bay in the Catlins. In most of these places DoC will have some signs or a rope to show you how close you are allowed and most areas also have volunteer staff who will give you lots of good info and make sure people don’t disturb the penguins as they return home.
Little blue penguins are very curious and happy around people and will come very close however the yellow-eyed penguins are much rarer (one of the rarest in the world) and cautious. It is advised to stay at least 20m from them so they don’t get frightened.
If you love penguins you can donate to the work the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust do to protect these rare little birds.
Go Whale Watching
Often animal encounters can be a bit controversial when it comes to sustainable travel but at Whale Watch Kaikoura they take every possible precaution to make sure the whales and dolphins are unaffected by the boats. They have strict rules in place for the number of boats and people allowed near the whales and adhere to Department of Conservation policies surrounding the protection of marine species including waste containment and minimising engine noise.
They have an 95% success rate of spotting whales so it can be a great opportunity to see these impressive creatures in the wild. Tours can get booked up pretty quickly, especially in peak season so make sure you book in advance.
If you would rather not go out on a boat there are often whale sightings from the coast near Kaikoura so head to the beach and see if your luck is in.
Take the Train
Another great form of sustainable transport is to take the train. New Zealand is not really made for train travel but there are a select few special journeys which are as much about the scenery as getting around. The Trans Alpine Express runs from the West Coast to Christchurch through the breath-taking backdrops of Arthur’s Pass. The Coastal Pacific runs along the stunning coastline between Picton and Christchurch during the summer months and there is also a tourist steam engine train running from Dunedin to Oamaru and back.
Support Local Businesses
Supporting the local economy is an important part of travel. In New Zealand it’s about each individual town rather than the whole country as often large companies benefit from tourism but not the smaller businesses.
If you’re travelling NZ in summer there are plenty of opportunities to buy fresh produce direct from the source. Stop at the side of the road at orchards, visit farmers markets or look for local artisans as you travel around. You can also look out for locally owned restaurants and cafes (don’t, for the love of coffee, go to Starbucks!) and stay at campgrounds, guest houses and B&Bs rather than hotel chains.