Waitangi upgrades to bring visitors north

The Waitangi National Trust will lock the gates in a 930 metre perimeter fence around the historic Treaty Grounds on Friday (12 July). But Bay of Islands residents who want to continue using the coastal path through the site can apply for a key to the gates on the track.

The Trust’s Board has recently approved plans publicised late last year to spend more than $10 million over the next two years, in partnership with a range of potential funding bodies, on upgrading and expanding attractions, facilities and activities at the historic Treaty Grounds.

The Board has also given the green light for a comprehensive travel trade marketing programme targeting both overseas and domestic tour operators and independent travellers and designed to double visitor numbers.

A new website will form part of a wide-ranging digital marketing strategy designed to persuade travellers to invest in a visit to Waitangi and the wider Bay of Islands area, and enable prospective visitors to plan and book their trip.

The upgrades at the Treaty Grounds will range from modernising and updating signage and interpretative material through to the construction of a museum designed to house permanently the Trust’s collection of Treaty-related taonga (treasures), many of which are currently in storage or on display in other museums across the country.

The full upgrade plan is dependent on funding being secured but negotiations with potential partners are at an advanced stage, Waitangi National Trust CEO Greg McManus said.

Work has already started on the first phase of the improvements; replacing aging infrastructure, introducing new presentation and interpretative technology, and refreshing outdated and worn signage. The $9.4 million two-storey museum is the largest project and the Trust aims to complete the building in time for Waitangi Day 2015, the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty. It will open the museum to the public later that year.

McManus said it was only sensible that the Trust should erect a fence to control access to the Treaty Grounds and protect the significant investment being made in the infrastructure, facilities and “priceless” heritage buildings.

Revenue protection was another reason for the fence, he said. The Trust had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years through overseas visitors entering the site without paying an entrance fee and the Trust “needed every dollar” from entry fees to help fund its future plans.

“That said, we erred earlier this year in our decision to close off the grounds unilaterally and without consulting the local community.

“That was wrong. We were wrong and I apologise unreservedly for that.”

The Trust will lend a key to any local resident who wishes to use the coastal path on a regular basis. Anybody who wants one should come to the main entrance, provide proof of residence, complete and sign a form containing the terms and conditions of use, and pay a nominal deposit to cover the key-cutting cost.

Key-holders will be entitled to use the coastal path only. Anyone wanting to explore the rest of the grounds will need to use the main entrance, although local residents will continue to enjoy full access without charge.

McManus said the multi-million dollar investment the Trust was making in Waitangi was designed to raise the visitor experience to a completely different level. He wants to lift the depth and quality of what Waitangi has to offer to levels enjoyed by visitors at other nationally significant heritage sites such as Gettysburg in the US or Hiroshima in Japan.

“Our culture and national heritage, with its story of how two sovereign peoples entered into a partnership to build a nation and a future based on mutual trust and respect, are unique,” he said.

“Of course it hasn’t always been easy, and there are still challenges ahead, but that’s all part of our shared history which must be told honestly and accurately.

“It’s a fascinating and compelling story that deserves to be presented in a world class way, in a world class setting.”

The Treaty Grounds get almost 100,000 legitimate visitors a year, with another 30,000 each Waitangi Day. The Trust aims to double these numbers.

Its vision is for the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to motivate and be the reason for travel to Northland and the Bay of Islands in particular.

Some 85 percent of visitors to New Zealand never go north of Albany, despite the sheer wealth of things to see and do in the Bay of Islands and the Mid and Far North, McManus said.

“From 2015 we’re going to start providing some extra pull that we hope will prompt more visitors to head north to find out at Waitangi what this country is all about.

“Preferably before they head south to throw themselves off bridges and search for hobbits. Because then they can do so with some insight into what really makes this country and its people tick.”

The Waitangi National Trust also aims to get more Kiwis to visit the Treaty Grounds. A study conducted by UMR Research in 2004 showed that 68 percent of New Zealanders were either not interested in, or ambivalent about, visiting the site. Of these, many thought there was an accusatory tone associated with it or were concerned about the neutrality of Treaty information available.

“We don’t think these attitudes have changed significantly over the past nine years, and they’re issues we’re taking seriously when it comes to designing our new-look presentation,” McManus said.

“It’s vital that we become a place that New Zealanders can relate to, and aspire to visit at least once in their lives. Waitangi must become a place of relevance for all New Zealanders; Māori, Pakeha and new New Zealanders alike. Our challenge is to tell the story in such an inclusive and compelling way that all visitors take something positive from the experience.”

Once the upgrades and expansion are complete the Waitangi National Trust will apply for Qualmark’s Enviro Gold certification. Qualmark is the quality agency for New Zealand tourism businesses and certification will enable the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to participate in Tourism New Zealand’s offshore marketing campaigns.

McManus said a long-term aspirational goal of the yet-to-be-developed website is for it to become the preferred portal for educational and scholastic searches relating to Waitangi and Treaty issues.

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