Overseas tourists and park access fees

It’s difficult to comment on recent calls for tourists to pay a larger share of maintenance of the conservation estate without detail of what’s being proposed. So far nothing’s been formally proposed.

This is a recurring topic. The most recent iteration seems to have begun with a Listener article about Te Araroa. One tangent included the following paragraph. It’s derived from an interview with DOC’s CEO, Lou Sanson, when discussing the impact of international tourists on the New Zealand conservation estate:

He hints at the possibility of a differential pricing system being introduced for backcountry huts to help protect Kiwis’ access. “We are moving to the stage where we have to look at this, because it may be quite unsustainable if you put another million people on top of it,” Sanson says.

Fairfax’s Stuff website picked up the story a few weeks later, headlining “DOC may charge overseas visitors to enter national parks“. Three days after, the Dominion Post (also Fairfax) carried an editorial titled “Yes to a fee for tourist trampers“. Then, Fairfax also published “Fewer Kiwis doing Department of Conservation Great Walks“. (The actual numbers quoted at the end of that article seems to show more New Zealanders walking Great Walks, despite dropping in some and increasing in others.) Following this came “Conservation boards say Department of Conservation is facing crisis“. Next, with the recent public purchase of Awaroa Beach comes “Should we tax tourists to it?“.

It seems fair to say that Fairfax, which controls a significant portion of New Zealand’s print media, has definitely adopted a theme, complete with a point of view. It’s triggered significant discussion in social media and elsewhere about whether international tourists, and particularly those who make use of New Zealand’s conservation estate, should somehow be made to pay more towards its maintenance.

I’m not diametrically opposed to the concept of using tourism-sourced income to subsidise the conservation estate (particularly the part of it which is affected by tourism), but implementation is everything. There are many problems with implementation.

The problem:

Over the last 15 years or so, New Zealand has become very popular as a destination compared with prior years. Tourism is now such a big industry in New Zealand that it’s tentatively overtaking Dairy as the top earning industry in New Zealand. Booming tourism is great in many respects. Local businesses have more opportunities to thrive. Jobs are created, and money cascades through the rest of the economy.

As has been aired much recently, though, certain classes of tourism come with negative externalities for New Zealand’s conservation estate. Parts of the estate have become extremely popular with visitors, creating new and intensive obligations for DOC to manage that impact. It’s unlikely that the current situation is sustainable. Entering public land is free, and DOC simply doesn’t have enough resources to manage all the people who want to enter certain places.

DOC’s funding has remained largely static for many years compared to the increase in interest. As was stated in the Dominion Post’s editorial, “something has to give”. It might be the government’s reluctance to provide more resources, or it might be the fundamental ways in which New Zealand runs its conservation estate.

The problem, therefore, is figuring out how to strike a workable balance between tourism impact on the conservation estate, and funding for its management.

Resolutions:

The most simplistic response to this problem is charge them for it. Make people who visit pay for their visit, and then redirect that revenue for managing their visit. Or, more nationalistically, make people who aren’t New Zealanders pay for their visit, but leave it free (or cheap) for locals. Even if accepted, though, the next question is how? It’s difficult for several reasons.

New Zealand conservation law champions both environmental protection and public access, almost in parallel. It was designed before the time of excessive tourism interest. It does not account well for the possibility that certain places might become intensively popular. Notably, section 4 of the National Parks Act guarantees free public entry to National Parks, just as section 17 of the Conservation Act guarantees free public entry to Conservation Areas.

Most of the conservation estate is a public place under New Zealand law. If you’re in New Zealand legally, it’s as legal to step into National Parks and Conservation Areas as it is to step into any other public place. These legal guarantees make it difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate impact by overtly shutting people off conservation land until they pay, at least without a law change.

Extending hut fees:

It is legal for DOC to charge for use of facilities. This ability is already used through DOC’s implementation of back-country hut fees. A minority of huts require purchased bookings and tickets, which are checked by a ranger, often a volunteer, at the hut. Most less frequented huts require tickets (or an annual pass) to be purchased beforehand, with tickets left in a box at the hut prior to leaving.

One seemingly obvious and easy option is, therefore, to increase the fees. Make bookings more expensive, and make tickets and passes more expensive. The rumour mill suggests that DOC may be considering this. From Lou Sanson’s Listener comments, it could possibly involve introducing a differential pricing system where tourists are charged more than New Zealand residents, or similar.

Revenue from hut tickets and passes presently props up roughly 40% of operating expenditure directly on standard back-country huts (ignoring Great Walk huts which are their own system), but this comparison also does not include expenditure on tracks, bridges, nor the staff to manage them, for which DOC may not legally charge at all.

Could people who aren’t New Zealand residents be charged more for huts? Sure, but I’m struggling to imagine an increase in hut fees actually working. The glaring problem with traditional hut fees is that the nature of New Zealand’s back-country infrastructure makes payment for huts very difficult to enforce.

Evasion of hut fees is relatively easy in all but the most frequented huts, where it’s practical to have wardens stationed. To be in breach of the rules, a person must effectively be caught staying overnight at a hut, and it’s not normally practical nor desirable for wardens to move around at night. Furthermore, it’s easy for dishonest people to carry hut tickets, but not deposit them at the huts where they stay except on the unlikely occasion that a warden happens to be present.

Large numbers of people almost certainly don’t pay fees. The nature of the problem makes it hard to measure accurately what portion of people don’t pay, but even DOC, in the above-linked Listener article, seems to be estimating that only 30% of hut nights are actually paid for. Anecdotes, at least, suggest that both local New Zealanders and tourists feature significantly in the non-paying brigade.

Thus hut fee increases penalise people who actually do pay, whether locals or visitors. Increasing fees for tourists might generate more revenue from tourists who pay, but at the same time would create an even greater incentive for those being charged higher amounts to not pay at all. Tourists can even do so legally if they choose to avoid using huts, and instead camp nearby, despite the likeliness of having a heavier environmental impact.

Border tax:

One thought often proposed is to impose a border tax on visitors, the proceeds of which would supposedly be allocated towards maintaining the conservation estate. It’s been suggested again, very recently, by Forest and Bird.

The idea has merit, but it’d need to be implemented carefully. It also faces resistance from airlines and much of the tourism industry. The Tourism Industry Association of NZ (TIANZ) expressed its reluctance very recently. At the same time it advocated more direct user-pays systems for tourists once in NZ, but did not detail any clear proposal of how it might actually work. Direct user-pays is logical from a tourism industry perspective. Many members of the TIANZ charge for services, and having free stuff alongside interferes with that model.

It’s tricky to apply a border tax in a way that everyone would consider entirely fair and reasonable. Not everyone who enters New Zealand does so for any reason whatsoever to do with the conservation estate, yet charging some people at the border but not others (perhaps depending on their class of visa?) would not account for collecting payment from people based on what they actually do once in the country.

Furthermore, any revenue generated from a border tax would risk simply going to a government slush fund for use elsewhere. Why collect a border tax specifically for the conservation estate, but not for anything else? If a border tax can be rationalised as collecting revenue for managing the conservation estate, should it not also be collected for funding ACC for visitors? How about to pay for roads that visitors frequently use? How much would these alternative rational causes, if later implemented, impinge on what can be reasonably collected for use on the conservation estate? Future governments could also use border tax revenue as an excuse to remove existing Crown funding from DOC and other conservation agencies, effectively leaving the estate in no better state than what is already is today. It could potentially be left in a worse state if tourism numbers drop in future.

Entry fees:

Another commonly proposed solution to DOC’s funding problem is to impose entry fees. Charge people to walk the tracks. Charge people to enter the parks. After all, lots of countries and/or states overseas do exactly this.

I personally have a philosophical objection to doing something a certain way just because it’s done that way elsewhere. It’s certainly worth considering how things are done elsewhere, but it’s also important to consider why we don’t already do this in New Zealand.

For one thing, this idea comes with practical issues. So much conservation land in New Zealand has many entry points, which would make it very difficult to police entry and exit. Extending from this, a risk of an entry gate system to also consider is the potential that such a scheme would create a perverse incentive for DOC to hinder or directly oppose moves to create new access points to parks which are often bordered by private land.

On the latter point, New Zealand already struggles with issues of public access to much of our conservation land, with so much of it surrounded by private land. In the March 2016 edition of Wilderness Magazine is anything to go by, Matthew Pike reports concerns from FMC that 30% of current access points to public conservation land are not legally binding at this time. Here’s a highly relevant quote about recent Ruahine Forest Park access issues at Kawhatau Base:

The previous landowner let trampers walk through his property and DOC was happy to maintain this informal agreement until it came back to bite it. Around four years ago, the owners decided to subdivide and sell. DOC was given the chance to buy the crucial block of land, either to add it to the conservation estate, or to secure a public right of way before on-selling. Instead, says previous owner Alan Rennie, the department “considered the land of low value to them”. The department sat idle while a private landowner bought the property and subsequently denied public access to Kawhatau Base.”

Securing improved access wherever reasonably possible is highly desirable, and the Department of Conservation needs to play a strong role in this. Shifting to a system of entry gates risks skewing DOC’s priorities towards having the fewest entry points that could be gotten away with.

From an historic perspective of access rights, there are also clear legal conflicts with current New Zealand law. For example, the following clause in the National Parks Act would need to be amended:

(4)(2)(e) subject to the provisions of this Act and to the imposition of such conditions and restrictions as may be necessary for the preservation of the native plants and animals or for the welfare in general of the parks, the public shall have freedom of entry and access to the parks, so that they may receive in full measure the inspiration, enjoyment, recreation, and other benefits that may be derived from mountains, forests, sounds, seacoasts, lakes, rivers, and other natural features.

It’d need to be changed to say “inspiration, enjoyment, recreation and other benefits from mountains, forests, sounds, seacoasts, lakes, rivers and other natural features, as long as appropriate quantities of cash or a charge card is presented to pay for it”. Or something like that.

More to the point, the language of this text, pulled directly from the National Parks Act, strongly emphasises just how seriously lawmakers took the rights for freedom of unhindered entry to public land. In New Zealand’s short history, conservation estate management culture has been built on free and open entry to public land. In some case, this is even a right that people have actively fought for.

New Zealand’s conservation estate model is that the land is owned by the public and operated in accordance with the law, and hence there are strong legal restrictions around how much the public can be limited from entry to public land. The government (DOC in this case) fills the role of a caretaker, and the caretaker doesn’t typically restrict people’s assumed rights to enter and explore and benefit from their own back yard.

Free public access to parks in New Zealand is presently a legally enshrined feature that’s treated every bit as importantly as looking after the natural values of the park. The law of the National Parks Act and the Conservation Act aim not just to protect what’s within, but also to protect the rights of anyone who chooses to enter to experience or explore those things which are protected. It’s all very well to say “but they do it over there”, and we should certainly consider how access works in other places, but simply saying that alone does not strike me as a compelling reason, by itself, to want to be like other countries. Nevertheless if we are to change the law and start charging directly for access, it must be done extremely carefully and with a clear understanding of the consequences.

But what if the law were only partly changed. Maybe it’s considered okay to charge tourists but not New Zealand residents? Could it be done in a practical way?

A conservation pass:

The conservation pass idea is where a person perpetually holds a pass which authorises them to be on conservation land. It must then be produced if challenged. It’s probably more compatible with New Zealand’s conservation geography than entry gates.

This idea has been proposed recurringly, but it received new media attention two years ago, when the Aoraki Conservation Board received an informal paper authored by David Round. (It’s not online, but contact me if you’d like a copy.) The paper purported in its title to be considering practicalities of “a conservation tax”, but despite discussing a conservation tax at first, he advocated much more strongly for a conservation pass system—specifically one targeted at non-residents.

The proposal would require non-residents to carry a pass whenever in designated zones on the conservation estate, possibly all of the conservation estate except for designated short walks on the edges. He argues that it’d be much easier to enforce than the existing hut ticket system. Unlike hut tickets, a conservation pass system would make it immediately clear to authorities if a person is on the conservation estate without permission. Evading enforcement becomes more difficult.

With David Round’s proposal, a pass would not be required for New Zealander residents, or at the very least residents would be eligible to acquire one considerably more cheaply.

An implied consequence of this idea, which needs consideration, is that it would most probably require everyone (New Zealanders included) to perpetually carry identification whilst on the conservation estate, either to be able to prove residence or to prove that the associated conservation pass belongs to them. On the surface this may seem mostly inconsequential for middle class office workers, except for the inconvenience of needing to carry their drivers licence or passports.

If New Zealand’s serious, however, about retaining real and unhindered access for all New Zealanders who manage to get to conservation land, then there needs to be genuine consideration of the possible effects that ID requirements could have on residents who don’t already have some form of identification. An ID requirement possibly creates a major barrier to being able to legally enter the conservation estate for some people who aren’t well equipped to go through processes necessary to get an appropriate ID. It could risk shutting entire classes of New Zealanders out of their own public land.

A conservation pass is a clear contradiction to existing law. It’d require at least some people to pay for entry to the conservation estate, which present law does not allow. If there must be user-pays then I’m not absolutely opposed to the concept, but for this reason I’m cautious of wanting to implement anything like this without a clear discussion about where we might be going, which rights are being compromised and which precedents are potentially being created.

Must there be user-pays?

All of the above assumes that some kind of user-pays system for tourists is inevitable. This isn’t necessarily absolute. For example, a conservation levy could be imposed on businesses and wages of those businesses’ employees where they mostly target and profit from international tourists. It’s not an unheard of concept. The town of Queenstown recurringly considers the possibility of placing a levy on accommodation, so as to extract revenue from its vast number of tourists which flood the town, compared with its relatively small number of ratepayers.

For the year ending March 2015, Statistics New Zealand estimates that international tourists spent $11.8 billion of the $29.8 billion spent on tourism in New Zealand total. 168,012 people are employed directly in tourism. A further value of $7.9 billion was added through indirect support of tourism.

With such a large and successful industry, could a tourist levy applied done on a larger scale for all tourism businesses, accommodation and restaurants that benefit from the conservation estate? If they’re making the money from tourists, which in turn result in heavier and more expensive management of the conservation estate, is it not fair that those who benefit most contribute more directly to the upkeep? Why not put a surcharge on everything tourists buy, and on the wages of workers in the tourism industry?

In fact, this collection of revenue from tourism, for the government, activity happens to be a scheme that we already implement. It’s more commonly known as tax.

New Zealand’s government derives tax revenue from business tax. It derives personal income tax. Furthermore, our tourism industry was directly responsible for roughly $2.5 billion of GST in the year ending March 2015, which went directly to Inland Revenue from visitor purchases of goods and services. By comparison, the Department of Conservation’s entire Crown funding for the year-ending June 2015, for all of its operations, both recreation and natural heritage throughout the entire country, was just $315 million.

For the same year-ending June 2015, Tourism New Zealand spent $120 million promoting New Zealand to the world to attract more tourists. Of this, $45 million was specifically spent on its 100% Pure New Zealand campaign, to attract visitors based largely on the properties of New Zealand’s conservation estate. The front page of the 100% Pure New Zealand website currently features two people walking on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. This is one of many areas which DOC has been trying to manage for overcrowding for some time. (TNZ’s $45 million figure comes from its YE2015 Annual Report, page 25.)

Tourism New Zealand rightly justifies its spending of taxpayer money by citing the economic benefits that its marketing brings to New Zealand. This cost to benefit ratio is compelling, but at the same time the divisions between the role of marketing and the role of managing the resulting impact seems to have resulted in those negative externalities for the conservation estate simply being swept under the rug.

If it’s reasonable to compare benefit with cost in such a way, should we not also be considering the negative impacts on our conservation estate as part of the net cost? The Department of Conservation is divided into a different silo than Tourism NZ. It’s an agency more tuned towards spending money to achieve its tasks than directly making money. It’s become the “someone else” who gets stuck having to cope with the problem being created by booming tourism which other branches of the government are actively engaged in promoting, yet lately its funding has barely increased from year to year.

Even a fraction of the $120 million that New Zealand spends on marketing itself to the world, orders of magnitude smaller than the huge boom for the economy and tax revenue which tourism brings, could make a massive difference for DOC’s ability to manage the impact of resulting tourists. Instead, we’re arguing about details: adding complexity and overheads to our administration, and potentially compromising some fundamental rights which have for a long time been treasured on New Zealand public land. This is all to make tourists pay small amounts more directly, and most likely with significant overhead costs for its administration.

There’s definitely room to consider if changes need to be made so as to protect parts of the estate from the impact of tourism. When rich foreign secondary schools seem to be planning trips which take advantage of free but limited access on Great Walks for under-18s, there seems to be something wrong.

Changes might require more forms of charging, as a deterrent if not a complete solution to funding the management. All of this said, though, I struggle to accept much of what’s so far been argued in favour of extracting money from tourists. Underlying all of this I think the fundamental issue is that the political branch of the government isn’t really interested in a long term functioning conservation estate.

The plan, or lack of it, seems to be about creating a tourist boom, with little thought or care about the consequences that, until now at least, could be ignored as a problem for someone else to deal with later. Consequently “user pays” is being ambiguously talked about, not as part of a comprehensive national plan for attracting tourists to New Zealand in a way that can be managed, but as a seemingly desperate fix on DOC’s part for a dilemma being casually created by those out of the scope of its control. I find it difficult to imagine a user-pays system being beneficial under these circumstances, at least until the conservation estate, its values and priorities are taken seriously.

Last time the conservation estate faced this sort of destructive conflict between government agencies, the Forest Service and the Lands & Survey Department were eventually disbanded, and mostly combined into a single Department of Conservation. This enabled strategies and resources to be handled more coherently.

Combining agencies probably isn’t the logical solution here, but it’d be helpful if New Zealand’s tourism strategy would do more to take negative consequences for the conservation estate into account instead of simply dumping those problems on an agency that’s being systematically starved for funding to achieve its mandated responsibilities even without excessive tourism to deal with. A good start would be to allocate additional funding to DOC each year for the purposes of managing impact of the year’s expected tourism.

As I said at the start of this post, it’s difficult to comment on recent calls for tourists to pay a larger share of maintenance of the conservation estate without detail of what’s being proposed. So far nothing’s been formally proposed. Time will tell, but short of a radical turnaround in government policy to demonstrate genuine commitment for protecting the conservation estate, I’m not confident that anything’s likely to be very enticing. Our whole attitude to tourism and the conservation estate needs to be more sophisticated than simply instructing DOC to clean up the mess.

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