More than 1000 tourism operators are suspected of operating illegally without a concession or breaching concession conditions and 30 aircraft operators are being investigated following a DOC crackdown.
The department has been policing concessions at popular tourist sites in the South Island for the second year in a row last summer as part of an increased focus on compliance.
Under the Conservation Act, any commercial operation on conservation land requires a concession. The maximum penalty for flouting the law is five years imprisonment or a $300,000 fine.
Over the summer, staff checked the concessions of transport and guiding operators at sites in Central Otago, Queenstown, Fiordland, Haast and South Westland. Out of 3542 checks, there were 816 cases where operators were breaching their concession conditions and a further 163 were allegedly operating illegally without a concession.
In total, 67 per cent of guiding activities checked were found to be non-compliant.
DOC national compliance manager Marta Lang Silveira said the operators would be sent warning letters in the first instance and given a deadline to pay for a concession for their activity.
“Operators who breach their concession are being put on notice,” Silveira said. “Several are on a probation period, and DOC is prepared to suspend or terminate concessions under the terms of concession contracts.”
Repeat offenders could also be prosecuted in future and one case was currently before the courts, she said.
DOC has also been investigating aircraft concession holders. Aircraft landings in the conservation estate are strictly controlled by concession terms which determine when, where and how often operators are able to fly and land.
Out of the 232 aircraft concessions, the investigation found 30 helicopter operators suspected of misreporting or exceeding their landing limits.
DOC said it would not release the names of the offending operators and would proceed with a case-by-case investigation.
“DOC will be having face-to-face meetings with operators suspected of misreporting or exceeding their landing limits and ask for an explanation,” Silveira said.
“Following these meetings, directors choose a course of action which can include probation, suspension or termination of a concession.”
DOC has come under mounting pressure from aircraft companies to increase the number of landings in the conservation estate due to an increase in demand from tourists.
Last year, DOC was criticised for caving in to lobbying to increase landing limits on the Ngapunatoru Plateau in the Darran Mountains under the guise of a research trial, which began in 2016. The Ombudsman subsequently investigated a complaint from Federated Mountain Clubs and found DOC’s actions were unreasonable and possibly illegal.