Editorial: Yes to a tourist tax
OPINION: New Zealand is an outrageously beautiful country and we all know it.
So too do the enormous number of tourists who venture to this remote place – 3.4 million in the year to November, a new record after many months of broken records.
All those hiking boots and campervans are a boon for New Zealand: tourism is the country's second-largest export industry, even if some of its workers do not earn terribly much.
But they make a mark too.
Earlier this year, the Conservation Authority, a government agency that advises DOC and the Conservation Minister, warned that the boom was putting "acute and, to a certain degree, unsustainable" pressure on infrastructure, such as huts, car parks and camping grounds.
The Great Walks are crowded, with queues and litter complaints common on some, like the Tongariro Crossing. Meanwhile, small towns' public toilets and parking spaces are stretched by onslaughts of freedom campers.
One report released this month by the tourism industry gave the example of Hahei on the Coromandel, which has only 300 residents, but can host 3000 visitors during the peak season. Yet it only has one parking lot with 45 carparks.
Those and other bottlenecks are helping contribute to a modest but growing sense of public unease about tourism, the report suggested.
Something has to give, as the recently-departed Prime Minister John Key came to see in his final few months in office.
"I don't think you can sustain going from three to four to five million tourists and not be, frankly, building more toilets and more facilities," he said last month, while musing over whether to introduce a bed tax, a departure tax or something else again.
He suggested that whatever was settled on, the money would be fenced off for tourism-related purposes, though he hinted that New Zealanders might need to pay it too.
The need for action is obvious, but how to pay for it is less so. One way would be for taxpayers to shoulder the cost. Tourists, after all, are already thought to pay about $2.8 billion in GST annually at present, much more than they cost the public purse. They've paid enough, according to this line.
Key's argument against this was that a future government might just fail to pay up for new infrastructure. That seems unlikely, and anyway it more or less applies to all public spending.
A better argument is simply that a tourist tax means a good deal for New Zealanders. The infrastructure gets upgraded, any public angst ought to be defused, and, if used smartly, the money might even improve Kiwis' access to the brilliant and remote parts of their country.
Such taxes are a dime a dozen internationally, including many of the places that Kiwi travellers visit and that provide our largest sources of incoming visitors, so they are unlikely to be seen as unfair or put off more than a trickle of visitors.
An increased, catch-all tax at the border would be simplest and best – not a bed tax that will require New Zealanders to jump through hoops to avoid.
This isn't a major problem, but it might yet become one. The Government should act on it in 2017.
- The Dominion Post