Out of the way
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the West Coast was remote, with poor roads, and so there were few tourists. Most climbers and trampers preferred the eastern side of the Southern Alps, where the rainfall was lower. The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers attracted a steady trickle of visitors, but this involved a lengthy journey by car or by bus.
The Graham family had provided guiding services and ran the Glacier Hotel at Franz Josef since 1911, but finally sold out to the Tourist Department in 1948. After the hotel burnt down in 1954, it was not rebuilt for over a decade.
Greymouth geologist Paul Caffyn is an internationally known sea kayaker. His first major trip in 1977 was a circumnavigation of the South Island, starting at Tewaewae Bay. Since then he has paddled his way into the record books with trips around Japan, Great Britain, Australia and New Caledonia, as well as the coastline of Alaska.
A new tourist loop
The opening of the Haast Pass road in 1965 made it possible to include a visit to the glaciers in a circuit of the South Island. The rebuilt hotel at Franz Josef was the first modern accommodation on the West Coast, soon followed by the development of other hotels and motels. There is now a well-defined tourist route starting at Christchurch, crossing the Southern Alps over Arthur’s Pass, stopping at Greymouth or Hokitika, then driving south to the glaciers, and departing over Haast Pass for Wānaka, Queenstown and Milford.
By 2006 visitor numbers to the West Coast had risen to 1.9 million a year, most of whom visited the glaciers. Almost 60% of the visitors were from overseas. The majority of visitors stayed for only one night, so much of their time was spent travelling and they saw only a limited part of the region.
Cave Creek disaster
In April 1995 a viewing platform collapsed at Cave Creek, in a remote part of Paparoa National Park, causing the deaths of 14 people, mostly students at Tai Poutini Polytechnic. The platform had been constructed by the Department of Conservation, but building techniques and inspection were inadequate. The resulting commission of enquiry led to much higher emphasis on safety and professional standards in outdoor recreation throughout New Zealand.
National parks and reserves
The forestry debates in the later part of the 20th century ultimately led to large areas of lowland forest being made reserves. In the 2010s the Department of Conservation managed 1.9 million hectares on the West Coast, about 25% of the protected public land in New Zealand. This included part or all of five national parks (Arthur’s Pass, Mt Aspiring, Kahurangi, Paparoa and Westland Tai Poutini) and Victoria Forest Park, as well as Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
The designation of national parks has led to the development of a network of visitor centres, as well as tracks and walkways to sites of natural and historic interest, which are mainly used by tourists.
Local authorities have enthusiastically supported tourism throughout the West Coast.
Several museums reflecting the history of local areas have been developed: Coaltown Museum in Westport; History House Museum in Greymouth; Blacks Point Museum near Reefton; and the West Coast Historical Museum at Hokitika.
Shantytown, south of Greymouth, is a reconstructed gold mining town where visitors can try their hand at gold panning, visit a sawmill, and ride on a steam train. Built by volunteers, it is a popular attraction that has been visited by over 3.5 million people since it opened in 1971.
Serious gold mining requires a mining licence and appropriate resource consents. To cater for people interested in recreational gold panning, eight areas have been set aside on the West Coast as gold-fossicking areas, where gold pans or sluice boxes can be used. All these areas, which are administered by the Department of Conservation, have good access, and several have picnic and camping facilities.