To get a feel for what Queenstown does best, try a few online searches. Combine the New Zealand resort town with “adventure capital of the world” and you will be confronted with 62,200 results. Restrict your search to “Queenstown” and “adrenaline” and you are up to an impressive 255,000 hits. Pair “Queenstown” with “never sleeps” to throw up another 33,300 references. By now, thrill-seeking insomniacs are likely to be typing “Queenstown” and “cheap flight”.
The scenic South Island holiday spot is the most popular destination in New Zealand among international visitors, which is no mean feat when you consider the competition. Queenstown was once a gold mining town, but today’s wealth is derived from a roll-call of high-octane outdoor activities (and others more relaxing), some dating back a generation. In 1988, the world’s first commercial bungee jump put Queenstown on the extreme-sports map. Thirty years later, Kawarau Bridge remains one of the more iconic places to take an elasticated leap of faith.
When it comes to getting the blood flowing, one would expect mountain biking in the awe-inspiring Remarkables range to be among alpha attractions. Not in Queenstown. Popular though two-wheeled expeditions into the foothills are, they are overshadowed by white-water rafting, jet-boating, zip-line rides and the 134-metre Nevis Bungy Jump, with its 8.5 seconds of free fall.
Insatiable daredevils can turn their knuckles white by skydiving, paragliding and heli-skiing, not forgetting plain old regular skiing, which has benefited from significant investment in chairlifts and snowmaking systems. If all this sounds too exhilarating, more sedate activities include horse riding and fishing in Lake Wakatipu. Hikers are in the right neck of the woods for a crack at the Milford Track, a stunning four-day tramp through Fiordland National Park, a wilderness region described in a 1908 Spectator magazine article as the “the finest walk in the world”, a description that’s hard to disagree with 110 years later.
And Queenstown’s long list of holiday activities still isn’t exhausted – even if you might be. There are 200 wineries within an hour’s drive, many devoted to world-class pinot noir. Lord of the Rings tourism draws “set jetters” to locations from the fantasy adventure film series. Next week, at least 6,000 delegates will descend on Queenstown for an Amway China leadership seminar. If they are hoping for a warm welcome, they will have come to the right place. In 2016, Condé Nast Traveler magazine ranked the tourist honeypot in New Zealand’s South Otago region the fourth friendliest city on the planet.
Adrenaline junkies are not the only ones infatuated with Queenstown, however. Wealthy foreigners are snapping up lavish lakeside properties in a phenomenon described as “apocalypse insurance”. Survivalism, the strategy of preparing for a natural catastrophe, a nuclear war or the collapse of society has captured the imagination of a growing band of high-net-worth individuals, who have decided that faraway New Zealand is the ideal place to see out Armageddon. On the other hand, maybe they just enjoy bungee jumping.
While builders, estate agents and luxury-store owners welcome the influx of super-rich homeowners, resentment is growing among locals irritated that some tycoons rarely even visit their sprawling properties. A lack of affordable housing and wage stagnation have prompted the government to table a law preventing foreigners from purchasing homes, although some question how a handful of billionaires buying enormous out-of-town boltholes exacerbates the housing shortage.
Despite locals’ reputation for friendliness, visitor fatigue is taking its toll. Not so long ago, Queenstown was a winter-sports resort that regained its equilibrium during a prolonged off-season. Now a year-round holiday destination, despondent residents are realising they should have been careful what they wished for.
Two million travellers turned up in 2017, choking the town (population 15,300) with traffic, stretching infrastructure to breaking point and creating a spiral of inflation that has resulted in the highest average house prices in the country. So high, in fact, that ski operators have been reduced to asking homeowners if they will rent out spare bedrooms to seasonal workers.
Irate inhabitants are less than impressed with government attempts to address the town’s growing pains, although a tourist tax is being considered as authorities seek a stream of income that can be used for infrastructure and business development without picking the pockets of local ratepayers.
Tourists have gripes as well. Hotel rates are now the highest in New Zealand and anyone arriving at peak times without a confirmed reservation will struggle to find anything under NZ$600 (US$435) a night. Travel forum reviews headed “overpriced and overhyped” have begun appearing.
And since we are discussing Kiwi hospitality and affability, Queenstown disappeared from Condé Nast’s Top 10 list of friendliest cities in 2017. Whether locals have become collectively grumpier than, say, the cheerful folk of San Miguel de Allende – a quiet town in Mexico that made the list – over the past 12 months is debatable, although there have been hints of hostility, particularly online. When the Facebook page Queenstown Whinge was set up as a community forum, no one, least of all the creator, foresaw that member comments would deteriorate into an aggressive and sometimes racist troll fest. After complaints from the police, the site was deleted.
The mantra of sustainable tourism is easier uttered than implemented. High-rise resorts are best equipped to absorb large numbers of holidaymakers with least environmental impact while smaller settlements such as Queenstown are less able to cope with the onslaught. Pristine, often fragile natural sites fare worst of all.
The Milford Track is being overwhelmed with record numbers of hikers, many of whom are uninterested in what’s around them, according to wardens. It’s a case of headphones on, heads down, take a few photos and tick another one off the bucket list.
Worse still, contractors repairing trails claim to have only just finished clearing paths and illegal campsites of human faeces and toilet paper as the hiking season gets under way again. Finest walk in the world? Maybe, but tread carefully.