Suggestion of Charging Overseas Visitors for National Parks

The Otago Daily Times has recently been pushing a story (parroted in the NZ Herald) about a suggestion of charging tourists for entry to National Parks in New Zealand. A further ODT story from the same day (last Thursday) briefly interviewed several visitors tramping some of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and there’s also an ODT online survey requesting people’s opinions. The story’s also being followed by Queenstown’s Mountain Scene. (Update 13-Feb-2012: At the time of posting, it looks as if I missed this analysis from the Nelson Mail; Update 17-Feb-2012: Wilderness Magazine also has a look at this.)

This isn’t a Department of Conservation thing, at least in any public way. The suggestion comes from the Ministry of Economic Development, as part of its briefing to the incoming Minister of Tourism, who just happens to be the country’s Prime Minister on this occasion. Such briefings are standard for most government departments after an election, reporting on their current state of affairs, even if their minister hasn’t changed. If you want to see the actual briefing, it’s available here. The relevant area is between about paragraphs 39 and 46, titled ‘Capturing greater value from international visitors’.

It’s important to recognise that it’s nothing more than a suggestion at this point in time, and might easily amount to nothing. Personally I think it’s a bad idea. Something I find most attractive about New Zealand’s back-country spaces is that fundamentally they’re not run as money making tourism juggernauts, although that’s about what MED is suggesting should happen given that part of its proposal mentions taking advantage of people’s “willingness to pay”. Surrounding businesses and concessionaires do that by providing extra things on top, but the land itself is available to all for entry.

Aside from the practical issues of actually charging people, it could also raise questions under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act if there’s a possibility that people are being discriminated against because of their nationality, even with arguments about whether people pay tax or not, which I don’t personally think hold up in any case. In the past, DoC has investigated the possibility of different charges for hut tickets between some definition of locals versus visitors and, although I can’t find a reference, my understanding is that the Bill of Rights was one of the complications in deciding not to do so.

This morning’s editorial in the Otago Daily Times seems to agree with me that charging visitors for National Park Access is a bad idea. The editorial highlights several of the issues, noting that there’s ambiguity with distinguishing between tourists and locals, many of our parks have numerous points of access such that attempts to collect entry fees would be impractical, charging for visitors would reduce existing good will and create tensions, and overall the drawbacks would outweigh any financial benefits.

An alternative way for implementing such a policy would be through some kind of New Zealand arrival tax which people are required to pay upon arrival, and this is something I also can’t see working very well, if only because it’d charge many visitors with no intent of visiting parks, or not reliably charge visitors who do have such an intent.

Once people are within park boundaries the Department of Conservation’s hut ticket system has already shown how impractical it can be to police whether or not a payment’s been made. Personally I think that system’s a bit of a joke, at least, when the only people being charged are those honest enough to pay, and there’s reason to believe that significant numbers of people (visitors and locals alike) don’t pay at the expense of others and very little is actively done about it. I’m happy to see actual evidence on this one way or the other, but the nature of trying to track people who don’t pay makes it very hard to obtain with certainty, and that’s the core of the problem.

As far as I can tell, there’s been no discussion of areas comparable with National Parks for many activities but which aren’t zoned as National Parks, such as Forest Parks and other Conservation Areas. Likewise there’s been no discussion of possible impacts on those areas if some parks require payment whilst others don’t. This doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be considered, given the entire thing’s based on a few paragraphs and little analysis or consultation process, but impact on non-charged areas is something that would concern me in future if the suggestion found traction. Hopefully any attempt to implement something would involve far more detailed analysis, and very careful judgement to match.

I do think it likely that a shift towards any kind of model that involves toll booths at entrance points will eventually result in local residents being charged for entry, irrespective of original claims, unless the whole thing is scrapped through impracticality before that happens. Following from this I worry that it could eventually affect the general freedom people have of moving in and out of such public areas without having to worry about bureaucracy. It’s something to keep watch on.

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