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Suggestion of Charging Overseas Visitors for National Parks

The Otago Daily Times has recently been pushing a story [1] (parroted in the NZ Herald [2]) about a suggestion of charging tourists for entry to National Parks in New Zealand. A further ODT story from the same day [3] (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 [4]. The story’s also being followed by Queenstown’s Mountain Scene [5]. (Update 13-Feb-2012: At the time of posting, it looks as if I missed this analysis from the Nelson Mail [6]; Update 17-Feb-2012: Wilderness Magazine also has a look at this [7].)

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 [8]. 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 [9] 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 [10] 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.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Suggestion of Charging Overseas Visitors for National Parks"

#1 Comment By Toothbrush On 14 February, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

Hi Mike,

I’ve been reading your blog for a few months and thought I would pipe in with my 2 cents on this occasion – as a foreign visitor to New Zealand, I am after all directly affected by this issue.

Let me start off by stating I do understand where this might be coming from: DOC lacks funds, and it’s very tempting to see tourists as cash cows, especially considering many of them do not always show a lot of respect for huts, tracks and parks. As a young visitor to New Zealand (I’m under 30 and travel on the cheap) I am often ashamed by the way fellow backpackers talk and behave, and I often wish I could make them pay through the nose for some of the stuff they get up to.

However, and as you have mentioned in your article, I believe implementing such a system would mainly result in penalizing honest visitors. It would be a shame to divide trampers into “good Kiwis who do not have to pay (much)” and “bad tourists who must”, and can only breed resentment and a feeling of unfairness. Some visitors may even be inclined to behave all the worse for it (sadly for some people it doesn’t take much to start thinking along the lines of “I’ve paid good money for this, it means I can do anything I want”).

It may also be taken into account that quite a few tourists are already paying a lot of money to go bush by means of the Great Walks, which are of course the most well-known and heavily marketed, and so end up being the ones most foreigners will do. It would be nice to know that other walks remain cheap/free for visitors that, like Kiwis, may have a keener interest in tramping and the wilderness, and don’t necessarily have a lot of cash to spare. It is also my deepest belief that whether in New Zealand or anywhere else in the world, nature should be free. It is not something to be bought, commercialized, or only accessible to the wealthiest.

Consequently, I hope plans such as these will be shelved and forgotten. However, I do realize this does not solve the issue of DOC’s dwindling budget and of people not paying their due. Is there any solution to that? I honestly do not know. One would think education would be the key so that more and more people learn to appreciate the value of national parks and understand they have a responsibility to help preserve them – by respecting them, paying the low fees currently in use, carrying out rubbish and generally going along the “take only photographs, leave only footprints” motto. It takes time…

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 20 February, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

Hi Toothbrush. Thanks for the additional thoughts. As you say, at this stage I’m also hoping this idea just evaporates as do many such proposals that flutter through the government ether, but I suppose it’s something to watch. It ties in with another recurring media theme which is charging for Search and Rescue, or (a common adaption) charging tourists for Search and Rescue. I started formulating a post about that some time ago, but it hasn’t really gelled as I want it to just yet.

#3 Comment By Thea Jenkins On 28 March, 2012 @ 4:32 am

Hi Mike,
I’m replying to this thread as a way of getting my REAL question to you.. But the matter of charges for overseas visitors to National Parks has some application for me. I was born a Kiwi and certainly never gave up my citizenship, but have spent years in Canada. Thus the NZ govt doesn’t consider me a permanent resident though I now spend summers in NZ. I wouldn’t object to a reasonable fee for park use as long as the money was really used for services and track and hut maintenance. BUT what I really want to know is if it would be possible for me to join some experienced folk to do an east west crossing of the Tararuas. This has been a (probably crazy) life long dream of mine. I grew up in Carterton and used to ride my pony up into the foothills but my family were not trampers so when young I only did short walks with family outings up the Waiohine Gorge, Mt. Holdsworth etc. We had a beach cottage at Waikanae and I always thought how great it would be to walk over there!! In later life I have done a fair amount of walking all over the world. I must admit I am pretty slow on hill climbs but so far I haven’t ever been defeated by any slope as long as I pace myself. The altitude in Hawaii and Ecuador was a challenge though. When I was in NZ for Dec, Jan, Feb and part of March just before leaving I picked up a map of the tracks and huts in the Tararuas out of the bargain bin outside a bookshop. It seemed that perhaps this was a sign and I began to think… maybe it isn’t too late after all…. Researching on line I found there is a lot of information about the route from Holdsworth to Upper Hutt but not a lot about other routes. Is the Reeves Track from Greytown still open? And what are the conditions on the Renata Ridge? This is described somewhere as “undulating”. Ha. That term was used a few times when I was hiking in the Waitakeres this summer and it seemed to mean some quite steep bits! Anyway as this is going out to a public forum maybe there are also others who may have comments also. Maybe my request will encourage some people to do an east west route in the next few months so there will be more information IF I somehow can organize to do it next summer. Hoping to hear back.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 4 April, 2012 @ 11:17 am

Hi Thea. I’ve been out of town for a few days so sorry for the late response. I guess I disagree with you about the charging thing but I’m not sure what else I can add.

Other than that, cool! I’m afraid I’ve been living outside NZ for the last year or so, and haven’t been completely up-to-date with what’s going on, but the easiest way to find experienced groups welcoming extras is to find a tramping club. (The ones I’m most familiar with are the Wellington Tramping & Mountaineering Club, the Tararua Tramping Club and the Hutt Valley Tramping Club, but [18].) The clubs all have different characteristics and ways of doing things, but if a club isn’t for you, though, you could ask in a place like the NZ Tramper Forums. Someone was [19] fairly recently.

I’m afraid everywhere in the Tarauas is undulating.. they have that sort of reputation. 🙂 Reeves Track is still open (I walked up it a month ago), but it’s not a very common way in or out, and a bit of a grind up the hill to start with. If you wanted to end up in Waikanae, then you’d probably be aiming to come out via Kapakapanui, in which case the route via Reeves is more accommodating, but that entrance is also a bit of a dead end next to a farm. If you’ve not been to the area before then I think there’d be more to see if you followed the more traditional Southern Crossing Route with an end at Otaki Forks. Most people start at Otaki and end coming down Marchant Ridge to Upper Hutt, but it’s possible to go down to Tutuwai Hut instead and over Reeves, or via Bulls Mound, past Cone Hut (historic with a dirt floor) and out at Walls Whare (over the river from Reeves and a much bigger entrance).

Anyway, that’s just some thoughts to get you started. If you’re rusty on the outdoors thing then I’d obviously suggest careful research before doing too much. The Tararuas are great but they have a lot of ups and downs, lots of rain and can get dangerously exposed in the wrong conditions. On good days they’re awesome, though. 😛