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Overall impacts of demographic change

Page updated: 14 February 2021

While some longer-term demographic trends could increase demand for SAR if unmanaged (e.g. an older population meaning more people with dementia), overall the balance of demographic factors seem more likely to reduce it. This includes the likely medium to longer term impacts of COVID-19.


As discussed on the section on COVID-19, the pandemic is more likely to suppress outdoor participation, and thus demand for search and rescue than to increase both over both the medium to longer term. 

This is because key sources of demand include air and maritime traffic, tourism and outdoor recreation by international travellers in New Zealand. All of these sources are reduced due to COVID-19 and only partly compensated by more outdoor recreation and tourism by New Zealanders.

Longer term, urbanisation is also likely to reduce demand. People living in rural areas are less likely to take part in activities at manmade facilities and more likely to take part in activities in natural settings than people from urban areas.  So, as we urbanise, we might expect more participation in recreation in safer settings. Asian participants, those from low socio-economic backgrounds and those living in large urban areas are less likely to take part in activities in natural settings. So as we become more ethnically diverse and as inequality rises, we might expect a small drop in outdoor participation in outdoor recreation, with a flow on to reducing demand.

We can expect more demand for SAR due to wandering behaviour of older people, except if there are major breakthroughs in treating illnesses like dementia. Prevention efforts are already underway to mitigate this risk, and technology makes it much easier and more routine to deal with people going missing, so this demand driver should not be over-stated.

We also know there is reduced participation in riskier outdoor settings of people who are more ethnically diverse and who are attracted by alternative forms of entertainment. Reduced demand for SAR services may also be driven by the tendency of older people to opt for safer and shorter stays in the outdoors – e.g. walking on established tracks.

Advice on how to prepare well for outdoor activities appears to be a useful way to help people avoid getting into trouble. It will never eliminate the need for SAR (e.g. due to mechanical failures of boats or accidents while tramping).  However, evidence suggests that we are not yet at the point where the full benefits of such activity have yet been tapped. As New Zealand becomes more diverse and attracts more tourists, such efforts will be more rather than less important over time.

It is important to remember that only 0.05% of the overall NZ population is ever the subject of a search or rescue effort. Consequently, broad changes in population trends may not translate directly to changes in the subset of the population who end up needing SAR services. 

We would recommend further targeted work to better understand the range of factors most likely to lead to a SAR incident. This should enable more effective prevention activity, reducing the need for SAR services in future. It may also be useful to explore specifically how to change behaviours of those going out on walks and tramping – e.g. to take a beacon rather than just talk about it.  While this may increase demand for SAR services, it will also help keep the public safe.

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