Nelson to Westport road – if you build it, they will come?

by Pete

Buller’s local government is set to debate whether a new road link between Westport and Nelson should be investigated as a means to boost tourism in its district.

The proposal to evaluate whether a 56km road running from Little Wanganui through to the Motueka Valley would be feasible has been backed by the Tasman and Buller mayors.

A discussion about the motion will be on the agenda at a Buller District Council this week.

“The council needs the facts before any emotional debate emerges, and if tourism is going to develop in Buller and contribute to Buller’s economic future to help replace its historical dependence on mining, we need a northern link road,” Buller Mayor Garry Howard said.

The road would largely follow the route of the existing Wangapeka Track through Kahurangi National Park.

If the proposal to investigate is approved, it would require environmental assessment, cost/benefit analysis and community impact reports to be completed.

Personally I am strongly opposed to cutting a road through virgin forest park, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.

The idea behind this road is that Wesport is dying.  As their economy is mostly coal driven, and coal being on the way out, they’re looking at tourism as their saviour.   But, the problem is that Westport and beyond is a bit on a dead-end road, so they don’t benefit from through traffic like Greymouth, and a lesser degree Hokitika.  

The real problem is that Westport is still a bit of a hole from a tourism point of view.  Even during summer you can’t get away from the coal smoke as people are using it to heat their water and do their cooking.  And during the colder months, the place is just unbearable for anyone with respiratory problems.  (To me this is pure old-New Zealand charm, but it doesn’t make the place attractive).

Unfortunately, Westport doesn’t have a lot of character.  It has improved over the last ten years, and you can even buy a decent meal after 7pm these days, but importing Subway or McDonald’s isn’t going to do anything but turn the place into an also-ran.

In fact, the true charm of Westport is that it is a supply stop to the wonderful treasures that lie beyond:  Denniston Plateau, Oparara Arch and the entry point (or exit) to the Heaphy track.  There is some prime real estate there for trampers and tourists.  And the only other oasis is Little Wanganui, with it’s landmark pub/restaurant/motel.

But that’s not enough by itself.  And certainly not to justify a new road.

Golden Bay has a similar problem where it doesn’t have a through road.  As does Jackson Bay south of Haast.  But it is the isolation and the unspoilt landscape that visitors want.  Not another truck stop, or another fast food chain, on the way to somewhere else.

Like the Milford Sound mono-rail, the Nelson-Westport road is going to be something talked about for decades but it will never actually come to be.   It’s good stuff to have on the council table the year before you want to be re-elected as Mayor, isn’t it?

The real problem with Westport is that it isn’t an attractive destination itself.  They have done great work with the old mine works around Denniston, but this is totally under-promoted for now.   The town itself feels disorganised, dirty, one narrow, straight, busy and congested main street, and then lots of old neglected looking streets beyond it.  Apart from the river, the river mouth/bar and a little bit of local history, there is nothing there to attract visitors, or keep them for very long.

So before you build a road, you need to build a reason to actually come to, visit, and stay in Westport.   I think they have done a remarkable job over the last couple of decades, and if this is continued, they’ll get there eventually.  Perhaps talking about the Nelson-Westport road now is the right timing, because it’s going to take at least another 20-30 years for Westport itself to transform itself into a destination worthy of a side-trip.


– NZN via 3 News

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