Operating from the stunning Lake Mapourika on the West Coast, Franz Josef Wilderness Tours has been at the forefront of eco-tourism for past ten years. With a diverse range of offerings such as kayak tours, stand up paddle-board excursions, boat journeys, and nature walks through a kiwi sanctuary in the rainforest, owner Dale Burrows has always harboured a love for the natural environment.
Dale, originally from Rakaia, grew up on a farm with a deep appreciation for the outdoors. After working as a glacier guide in Franz Josef for two and a half years, he moved to Canada, where he met his partner, Bronwyn. Together, they fell in love with kayak guiding and eventually returned to New Zealand. After running a kayaking business on Stewart Island and exploring various other ventures, Dale and Bronwyn moved back to Franz Josef. In 2013, they purchased Franz Josef Wilderness Tours and have been dedicated to the eco-tourism business ever since.
In recent years, Franz Josef Wilderness Tours has taken part in various environmental initiatives, including the Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) program, a part of the Predator Free South Westland initiative. Using advanced technology like drones and AI cameras, the program aims to eradicate invasive species like rats, possums, and stoats, preventing re-infestation and restoring the ecological balance in the region.
“An AI camera is installed every 600 meters around the lake's perimeter, encircling the sanctuary, and throughout the region,” Dale explains. "ZIP Rangers will receive alerts about predator sightings, like ‘there was a rat at camera X at 3 a.m.’, allowing them to respond swiftly and prevent breeding.”
He says what is truly amazing is the impact of the predator-free program on the forest. It is not just the resurgence of birdsong, but also the revival of the forest itself.
One significant outcome of the pest control measures has been the revitalisation of the native Kiekie plant. Despite operating tours in the area for years, Dale had never witnessed the Kiekie’s beautiful white flower bloom, as pests consumed them. "With the elimination of pests, we're now seeing Kiekie flowers. And now that the flowers have blossomed, we will see the Kiekie fruit," he added, which will provide sustenance for indigenous bird species.
Dale said the resurgence of flowering Kiekie plants serves as a testament to the effectiveness of the pest control initiatives. “Witnessing the positive ripple effect on the local ecosystem is truly rewarding."
COVID-19 posed a significant challenge for tourism businesses like Franz Josef Wilderness Tours, with South Westland being one of the hardest hit parts of the country. “Our region relies heavily on international tourism,” Dale explained. “Losing our primary income stream meant we had to explore alternative options and restructure our business. It was a difficult time, but it also provided us with an opportunity to refocus.”
During the pandemic, Franz Josef Wilderness Tours took part in the Department of Conservation's (DOC) Jobs for Nature Programme. "It was an incredible chance for us to get more involved and learn about our local ecology," Dale explained.
His team contributed to several conservation projects, including monitoring bat and fish populations, analysing camera trap data, and conducting kiwi health checks. The work with the Jobs for Nature Programme even resulted in the discovery of the critically endangered long-tail bat, or pekapeka, after staff at Franz Josef Wilderness Tours collected sound recordings of the mammal. Dale said, "It was a real buzz to discover the long-tailed bats right in our backyard.”
The valuable insights gained from collaborating with DOC through the Jobs for Nature Programme have deepened Franz Josef Wilderness Tours' appreciation and understanding of the local environment, flora, and fauna, enabling them to enrich their guests' experiences with newfound knowledge during their tours.
Inspired by his farming family, Dale began the journey towards carbon neutrality for Franz Josef Wilderness Tours. Raised on a dairy farm and with a brother running a sheep and beef farm, Dale was immersed in conversations about the environmental impacts of farming. This awareness prompted him to examine his own company's environmental footprint and take action. Last year, Franz Josef Wilderness Tours committed to becoming carbon-neutral, achieving this goal through reducing their carbon footprint and offsetting emissions.
Dale says it was rewarding to discuss the process with his family and brother, who has an 840-hectare farm in North Canterbury. “We discussed various projects and initiatives they've implemented, such as planting 18 hectares of native trees last year to offset their carbon footprint."
With borders reopening, tourism has bounced back more robustly than anticipated. Initially, Tourism New Zealand projected a 65% return in tourism, but Dale explained, "This season, we've exceeded expectations, reaching nearly 120% of pre-COVID numbers." The company is delighted to see New Zealanders continuing to explore and appreciate their own backyard, as well as the return of international tourists.
Development West Coast chief executive Heath Milne says, "operators like Franz Josef Wilderness Tours play a vital role in promoting regenerative tourism in the region. Their commitment to conservation, education, and eco-friendly practices not only enhances the visitor experience but also contributes to preserving the West Coast's untamed natural wilderness."
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