With 20,000 members, Federated Mountain Clubs, has a keen interest in the management of our conservation estate. Its president Peter Wilson offers a tramper’s perspective on tourism growth
Throughout New Zealand’s short history, our wilderness and conservation estate has repelled many threats from commercial interests.
Existential threats such as logging, damming for hydroelectricity, mining, and roading have largely receded. The one major commercial interest that remains and that is growing substantially – tourism – is different in that it is largely non-extractive. Whilst it seeks to make a profit, its business model is utterly dependent on the quality of the environment. Tourism interests are likely to be allies against any recidivist return to logging, mining or other extractive uses of conservation land. This has already been seen, with Ngai Tahu Tourism opposing plans to build the Haast Hollyford Road in Fiordland National Park.
However, tourism businesses, like any business, seek to maximise profit, minimise competition, and seek property rights to operate. This drive for both the buck and exclusivity will always be at odds with our egalitarian backcountry culture – and our existing legal framework.
The small local tourism business with boots on the ground might share these values with trampers, but when it comes to larger companies, it’s much the same as any other business. The recent proposals from big tourism to privatise the Great Walks show that the thinking is purely profit-motivated, with little sense of history or culture. But just because the clash is largely subjective – around different expectations of crowding, visitor numbers, and track standards – it’s still felt keenly by Kiwis.
New Zealand also has a long history of boom and bust development, including within tourism. As a rule, New Zealand does not appear to plan for economic development, preferring instead to leave it to the market, with commodity thinking tending to push volume above value. The dairy industry is a case in point, with a legacy of polluted rivers and indebted farmers. The wine industry took years to get onto a sustainable platform, but, through good leadership, eventually achieved it. That’s the stark choice facing tourism right now: to get strategic and protect the product, or leave it to the current adhoc approach and risk the whole brand, as well as the most special parts of New Zealand.
In a few locations, ‘100% Pure’ is close to 100% Pure Crowded. At some point, the famous Kiwi welcome may be at risk; perhaps the proliferation of ‘no freedom camping’ signs is the first sign of a tipping point.
An industry without a strategic plan is not sustainable.
In the middle of this sits the Department of Conservation, guardians of one third of New Zealand. DOC has had a diminishing annual budget since 2008, approximately $350 million. The taxpayer-funded component of international tourism marketing is more than half that. It is true that new money has become available for conservation, most notably for two rounds of pest control through Battle for our Birds, and recent money for Predator Free New Zealand, but on huts and tracks and core infrastructure, the budget freeze continues. This has direct effects: DOC has re-prioritised its limited funds to handle the tourism boom, which means other backcountry areas are missing out. It’s not all bad; in many places, community groups have willingly picked up some of the load and, in the process, reconnected to their backcountry, but there will be limits to this approach.
The challenge and the current debate is around how to fund tourism infrastructure. DOC, and political parties, have seized upon a border tax as one option. Another discussed approach is differential charges – a different rate for locals and tourists for huts. FMC does not believe either of these two options will deliver for trampers.
The pool obtained by a tourist tax will be siphoned off by other interests, such as local and regional government, tourism businesses themselves, and perhaps some cash for DOC car parks and toilets long before any of it gets into the backcountry. It will also allow politicians of all stripes to declare the DOC funding issue resolved, and back away from giving the department its long-deserved baseline funding increase. Under a tourist tax scenario, DOC funding may well deteriorate further.
Differential charges strike at one of the fundamental features of New Zealand identity: our egalitarian backcountry culture. Everyone is equal in a hut, with one’s choice of individual effort being the only true discriminator. A separate charge for Kiwis and tourists will erode this culture.
The FMC executive debated this issue extensively, on behalf of our members and clubs, and arrived at a relatively elegant solution. Tourists already pay GST, and it would be simple to tag some of this revenue for infrastructure, and for DOC. The second push will be for the industry to form a strategic plan, in genuine consultation with recreationists.
FMC and DOC want to work together on these issues, as it’s vital that DOC has support for any recreational planning decisions it makes.
FMC has a long history of engaging with tourism and the government to ensure our backcountry is kept free, fair, and open. In the midst of the current tourism boom, we will not be short of work to do on behalf of our members.