On New Zealand Conservation Estate Fees for Tourists

It’s interesting to see that David Round, a member of the Aoraki Conservation Board, is calling for foreigners to be charged more than NZ Citizens and Residents for use of the Conservation Estate.

From that single article, it’s unclear to me exactly what’s being proposed by Mr Round. The Timaru Herald’s headline suggests charging foreigners more for hut fees. The base complaint is about “enormous non-payment” of hut fees, and of it being very hard to police. Inconsistent with the article’s title, the proposed solution seems to involve something about an “international access pass”, which would not be directly attributed to huts but would be required to “enter larger parts of the conservation estate”.

Charging higher amounts for tourists is a topic which comes up recurringly, but so far has not gained any traction. There are a variety of relevant factors, both to do with practicality and law.

I’m already on record as generally not being a big fan of hut fees. I buy my annual pass every year as long as I’m required to, and it’s a good deal, but as far as I can gather from a variety of anecdotes, it’s completely true that large amounts of people simply don’t pay them. In the Tararuas and Ruahines, where I spend a lot of my time, there’s historically been very little policing of hut fees, with the local conservancies presumably deciding there were much more worthwhile things they could spend their funding on.

I wrote more about this in 2010, where I argued that the largely unenforceable nature of hut fees makes them effectively just a price for honest people. My personal impression (not absolutely backed up with data and therefore subject to change) is that we’d be better off if we didn’t bother with hut fees. We shouldn’t be funding wardens, in remote places, if their primary purpose is to ensure that people pay. I think things could work more fairly if there were alternative ways to fund the recreation network.

I don’t see this as an issue which specifically relates to foreign tourists. From anecdotal evidence there seem to be no shortage of visitors who fail to pay to stay in back-country huts, but from anecdotal evidence which must be at least as reliable, there are plenty of New Zealanders who also fail to pay, for a variety of reasons. Hut books are not a reliable way of measuring how many people have visited or stayed in a hut. Consequently I don’t see a lack of hut fee payments as a specifically good justification to try and charge more for foreigners, at least for specific use of huts.

Higher hut fees don’t appear to be what Mr Round is proposing, though. He’s suggesting some kind of general pass for tourists, which overseas visitors would be required to purchase before being allowed to enter “larger parts of the conservation estate”.

To attempt this is fraught with a few practical and legal challenges. Practically, unlike some other countries, many New Zealand National Parks and Conservation Areas have many points of entry and exit. Trying to police the entry into many of New Zealand’s parks would probably be even harder than trying to police use of the huts within them. Trying to police the use of a pass from within the parks would at least require a method that’s more effective than the current system of policing hut tickets at the point that people arrive at huts.

If the practical issues were resolved, at least as big an problem, though, would be the legal aspect. Presently, New Zealand Law guarantees free entry for the public into the conservation estate. It does not discriminate on the basis of nationality or residency—if a person wishes to enter conservation land, as long as it hasn’t been closed off through extraordinary circumstances, the government is not allowed to charge for entry.

I wrote last year about how New Zealand’s Conservation Estate is legally arranged. In summary, the three main categories are National Parks, Conservation Areas (inclusive of Forest Parks, Conservation Parks and Stewardship Land), and Reserves. Reserves are hit and miss for access rights because they’re typically set aside to preserve specific things which might trump human access, but for recreation they’re not a major part of the estate in terms of area. For National Parks and Conservation Areas, which make up the bulk of the area of the conservation estate, free public access is guaranteed in law.

Specifically, section 4 of the National Parks Act states that “the public shall have freedom of entry and access to [National] parks”. Similarly, section 17 of the Conservation Act states that “the entry to and use of conservation areas by the public shall be free of charge”.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad idea to try and design some type of charge for visitors. It’s a rational argument that New Zealand citizens and residents pay much more tax towards the conservation estate than visitors, but it’s not as simple as slapping a charge onto entry. Maybe it would, for example, be possible to charge some kind of unpopular but general “conservation entry tax” for all overseas visitors to New Zealand who enter on a tourist visa, but anything that can be portraited as being a direct entry to and use of the conservation estate could be a violation of the law as it’s currently written.

With that in mind, another solution might be to change the law, but this side of the law also represents some fundamental rights for people to enter their own back yard, on their own terms, and under their own responsibility. This is a major benefit of the New Zealand Conservation Estate, which simply doesn’t exist in some countries. There are no entry gates. No toll booths. For the most part the law still presumes that you can be at least as capable of making your own decisions as anyone on a government pay-roll, and so with few exceptions there are no officials who will (or legally even can) lock you out for what they designate as being your own safety. You’re still allowed to go there, explore on your own terms and be responsible for yourself, as long as you’re following the basic principles of looking after the land and leaving it as you find it.

Should those types of rights only apply to people who actually live in, New Zealand? Maybe. I’m not personally convinced, but it’s at least an avenue for debate. But an attempt to change this part of the law would very possibly meet significant resistance. Even with sympathy towards the idea of asking visitors to pay a comparable amount towards protection of the estate as what kiwis already pay in tax, the principle of enabling some charging for entry risks opening a pandora’s box for future changes.

Infrastructure designed to extract money from foreigners, or to restrict some people’s movement, can easily be adapted to do the same for everyone. With such infrastructure in pace, it might not be too much more of a leap before charges start to inflate simply to cover the overheads and operating costs of collecting them.

Furthermore, I think people who perceive themselves as paying more money can tend to develop higher expectations of services, and there are further questions around how such changes would impact the way in which use of the conservation estate is balanced between recreation and tourism. For example, charging tourists for entering the estate could create new incentives to turn more of our conservation land into a highly managed disneyland style “experiences” comparable with the likes of what Great Walks have arguably already become, and then charge even more to pay for it all.

I wouldn’t completely rule out the concept of Mr Round’s proposal as a possibility. It’s been around for a while. Without further information, though, I’m skeptical that it’s as clear-cut as some might think, or that it would be as simple-a-thing to implement as I think some might imagine.

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