Rising hut fees, the price of being honest

I woke on Saturday morning to the Radio NZ news that back-country hut pass fees are to rise, or more to the point that they’ve already risen as of last Friday when the announcement was made. The base cost of annual hut passes rises from $90 to $120, and Great Walk Hut bookings (for those who use them) are also rising by $5 per night. The price of individual hut tickets (for those not using passes) stays the same at $5 each, although the Department of Conservation increased the number of tickets required to stay in many huts during mid-2008, when the “serviced hut” cost went from 2 tickets to 3 tickets per night.

The story hasn’t made it far through the media, and most places where it’s visible show as a regurgitation of DoC’s press release pulled off the news-wire. One media organisation that investigated further was the New Zealand Herald, although the Herald’s story doesn’t offer much further information except to get a quote from a Mountain Safety Council representative who “welcomed the increase”. The article’s thin on detail about why the MSC welcomed the increase, just as it’s thin on why the MSC was consulted before organisations that more directly represent use of back-country huts (as opposed to outdoor safety) such as FMC, the NZ Alpine Club the NZ Deerstalkers, or any number of local outdoor recreation clubs for that matter.

Hut fees were introduced in 1988 by the newly-founded Department of Conservation. They’ve taken time sink in, with many people early on finding it offensive for the government to effectively usurp facilities they’d helped to build, and then charge for their use. Chris MacLean’s Tararua history book quotes John Rundle during a 1991 taped conversation as follows:

“I, with a lot of other people, have put a lot of voluntary time in cutting these tracks, building these huts — which DoC hasn’t done — going on searches, instructing schools, Scouts, Girl Guides and things like that — all voluntary. For them to come and ask me for a hut fee is an insult.”

As MacLean writes, the Tararuas, which have a strong history of recreational tramping and community involvement, began with about a 25% compliance rate when hut fees were introduced. In 1989 this resulted in a long weekend helicopter blitz in which rangers were flown around many huts throughout the range to pounce on those staying there, and ensure that $4 hut fees were paid. It was bad for public relations, but apparently effective in the longer term and reportedly the $1100 use of the helicopter was cheaper than paying rangers to walk to all the remote places.

These days I’ve found it difficult to find wardens in Tararua huts. I guess either most people pay, or that the local DoC conservancies are indifferent towards enforcing it and would rather spend money elsewhere. I’ve met a volunteer warden once, at Mitre Flats about a year ago. He was a nice guy out for his own weekend tramp with a friend more than to be a warden. They had the warden’s quarters as a guaranteed room, but got the fire going before anyone else did. Next morning he wired up the warden’s radio to call in the hut’s overnight numbers and get us all a weather forecast. He reluctantly asked people to show hut tickets, which is a warden’s obligation, but decided from an unrelated conversation that I probably had an Annual Hut Pass and politely told me he wasn’t going to bother asking me to prove it. I dug it out and asked him look at it anyway, because it’s the only chance I’ve ever had to actually prove to a DoC representative that yes, I really do pay my hut fees.

To try and address some of the concerns people have, DoC also made a few concessions. A commitment was made to only use hut fee revenue specifically for maintenance and building of huts, rather than simply vanishing into DoC’s budget — it’s all in the presentation of the accounting, of course. Custodian arrangements have also been kept with many clubs, so the clubs can remain associated with certain huts, and hold a joint responsibility for their up-keep. In such cases, club members aren’t obligated to pay fees for using those huts, though I suspect many would have annual hut passes anyway.

[Edited 9-July-2010: I’ve added the following table and three paragraphs having heard back from DoC with some numbers]
Hut fees have always felt like token gestures to me, with the impression that they don’t come close to the costs of maintaining the hut network. I did, however, ask the Department of Conservation for more detailed numbers about maintenance of the back-country hut network compared with revenue from hut tickets and hut passes, and received limited information back from a very helpful person. For the financial year ending June 2009, DoC received the following revenue for various kinds of hut tickets not including Great Walk huts:

DoC Hut Ticket Revenue for the year ending June 2009:
Annual Hut Passes $396,000
Adult Tickets $412,750
Youth Tickets $32,750
Cash transactions/invoices* $437,500
TOTAL $1,279,000
* Cash transactions and invoices account for groups like tramping clubs and schools that pay direct to local DoC offices instead of purchasing tickets.

In the same year, as was stated in DoC’s Annual Report for the year ending June 2009, expenditure on “huts” was about $16.5m. A crucial point to note with the $16.5m expenditure figure, as was confirmed by DoC when I asked, is that it includes the cost of maintaining Great Walk huts, an amount that I was told couldn’t be separated. Great Walk huts are the five star hotels of the hut network, likely to be very expensive to maintain. Also critical when comparing the $16.5m expenditure with the $1.3m hut ticket revenue is that the user-pays part of Great Walk huts does not come from the regular back-country hut tickets and annual passes at all. It comes from a separate booking and payment system (revenue $3.9m during the same time) that’s independent from other huts.

Having subtracted Great Walk hut maintenance from the initial $16.5m figure, whatever substantial amount it may be, the $1.3m that hut tickets put towards maintenance of the rest of the hut network is likely a big proportion of maintenance, and not such a token gesture after all. If the heavily marketed tourist-frequented Great Walk huts cost $10m to maintain in that year (and let’s be clear that I’m guessing), $1.3m of hut ticket revenue makes up a good 20% of the remaining $6.5m allocated to maintaining 950-odd huts in the rest of the network for which hut ticket revenue is supposed to directly contribute.

When I first posted this before having the figures, I’d guessed that the extra money from raising hut fees wouldn’t make much difference, but now I’m not so sure. If anything though, I think it reinforces my belief that there would be much less stress on the system if all hut users actually paid for huts as they’re supposed to.

There are many people out there who don’t pay hut fees at all, both New Zealanders and tourists, and this is what annoys me about the price rise for honest people. Hut fees are an honesty system, which is not a voluntary system. Rather than the government taking a clear and visible initiative to get more of those people to pay, I feel as if I’m being made to further subsidise certain other people’s free-loading. Huts should either be fully subsidised for everyone with the addition of labour and funds as people choose to volunteer (which used to be the case), or have their costs equally shared by all users as fairly as can be managed. The current system doesn’t give the impression of doing this very well. It’s unfair to people who are honest.

Recent Federated Mountain Club Bulletins have been scattered with letters of people complaining about tourists who refuse to pay hut fees. For instance, Trish Jenner of the North Shore Tramping Club comments (Letters, FMC Bulletin 179, March 2010):

For a number of years I have noted how few pay. At one hut, New Zealanders, including us, numbered nine and every one had a ticket or annual hut pass. Foreign trampers also numbered nine but only two had bought hut tickets — a high level of non-compliance. Comments from friends suggest other tracks, for example the Dusky, support these figures.

At the Mangaturuturu Hut, an American couple camped nearby, but one of them slept in the hut, and they used the woodstove for cooking. They commented that they were “doing New Zealand on the cheap”. A French couple seemed to be playing a game of avoiding hut wardens and commented, “We are very bad tourists!”

This story is consistent with other random anecdotes I’ve heard from various people. Maybe one of the more amazing stories was of a group of tourists reportedly living in huts near road-ends for weeks on end without paying a cent, and driving out to do the grocery shopping. I’ve heard other anecdotes about tourists telling each other as they return home that the back-country hut system in New Zealand is free, and it’s completely legal and ethically okay to do this kind of thing.

One comment in a newswire feed of the recent story over at YahooXtra, from a poster claiming to live in a National Park, agrees that there’s no shortage of “hut users who have no intention of paying the NZ taxpayer for their accommodation”. Some anecdotes are extremes but there’s an underlying impression that there’s a combination of mis-information and probably intentional abuse of the system. I don’t wish to stereotype all tourists when saying this. I figure most tourists are very responsible, or at least try to be if they understand what’s expected.

It’s not just tourists to New Zealand, of course. A quick anecdotal browse of posts in the forums over at Fish & Hunt in response to this recent price rise shows that there are still New Zealanders who don’t pay fees, either because they didn’t realise they were supposed to, because they can’t be bothered, or because they refuse on principle through disliking the government for some other reason such as its use of 1080 poison for pest control.

There’s allegedly a correlation between people who avoid hut fees and people who don’t write in books, supposedly from a fear that wardens or other Department of Conservation staff must go through names in the books and correlate them with names on tickets. I can’t imagine this actually happens, but nevertheless the avoidance of writing in books is a bad thing. Avoiding writing in hut books inhibits Search and Rescue operations when it’s unclear if a missing person has been through a hut. It also gives a false impression of how frequently a hut is used, since otherwise it’s very difficult to tell. This might in turn result in the hut’s removal, or less maintenance than might be ideal.

The remoteness of back-country huts means it’s difficult to ensure that people pay fees. It’s also impractical to enforce hut fees too severely lest it put people’s lives at risk by preventing them from using huts in times of danger. In other words, putting locks on the doors would be very bad. It’s unfortunate that the honesty system results in significant proportions of people not paying for one reason or another.

Overall I think there are at least three groups of people who don’t pay hut fees:

  1. Those who don’t realise they’re supposed to pay hut fees.
  2. Those who forget or can’t be bothered to pay hut fees.
  3. Those who refuse to pay hut fees due to some sort of principle.

Endless ideas exist for how to deal with this problem, some of which are being attempted but not completely effectively it seems. Some ideas that I like are:

  • Having better signs in strategic places (DoC offices, road-ends) to make it clearer to people that they have to buy hut tickets before they leave.
  • Making it easier for people to pay for hut usage in retrospect. From time to time it’s necessary to use huts without prior planning, or sometimes people just forget to buy tickets before they leave. I guess the ethical thing to do afterwards is to buy hut tickets as appropriate on returning and tear them up. There’s no formal or above-board way of doing this, however, and tearing up a ticket won’t credit it to the count of people using the specific hut as leaving a ticket stub behind would have done.
  • More clearly informing tourists of what to expect when they enter the country, and working more with guide-book editors and tour agencies through which people book their trips to make it clearer to people from the beginning that they actually will have to pay. Presently the international arrival terminals present a wealth of information about what can’t be brought into the country, but very little information about what to expect and how to act.
  • Giving visitors an easy opportunity to buy a hut pass as they enter the country, or even from overseas when they book their trip here, so that visits to back-country huts (except Great Walks and a few other exceptions) are pre-paid by the time they arrive, and so bookings for Great Walk huts will get the usual discounts for those with annual hut passes.
  • Perhaps letting people send their fees to DoC through their phone bill, or something along those lines? The cellphone reception at most back-country huts is non-existant, and hopefully it stays that way for times to come, but even if there are ways to let people to enter a text message into their phone to be sent at a later time, and tell their phone company to transfer money to DoC, it might help to increase the payments.

I bet there are many more ideas.

The group of hut users who don’t pay on principle is unlikely to be swayed by any of these ideas. Probably the only things that can be done in some cases is either to accept it, to change the rules (eg. perhaps formally recognise people’s use of facilities is in exchange for their up-keep of the facilities), cater to people’s principles where it’s feasible to do so, or bring in more enforcement. It’s hard to say which (if any) of these is a good idea. They all have down sides. Still, I think if DoC’s going to progressively raise the hut fee prices for those who are honest, there’s a need to more heavily address the problems with other people not paying at all. Otherwise it’s an unfair system.

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