DOC may charge overseas visitors to enter national parks
International tourists may have to start paying to visit our national parks as the Department of Conservation struggles to cope with the tourism boom.
Concern about pressures on conservation land from swelling international visitor numbers has prompted the Conservation Authority to start investigating "charging mechanisms" to pay for the increasing costs of handling those numbers.
Last year, tourism replaced the dairy industry as the top foreign exchange earner for the first time in five years, bringing in $13.5 billion, compared with $13b for dairy.
A total of 3.1 million tourists visited New Zealand last year, but the tourism sector predicted numbers to grow by nearly another million in about five years.
Warren Parker, chairman of the authority – which advises DOC and the conservation minister – said on Wednesday that more international tourists visiting the DOC estate meant increased costs for infrastructure, waste removal, cleaning campgrounds, and other expenses.
Such growth was unsustainable for DOC unless it could access some money generated by the tourism market because Government funding had "flat-lined", he said.
"Those costs have to be met from somewhere ... Either the Government increases funding, we do less or reallocate resources, or we look at user-pays."
The authority hosted a workshop last week with DOC, Tourism New Zealand, and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to start brainstorming ways to address the impacts on conservation from increasing tourism.
A key topic was considering ways to charge tourists so that taxpayers or DOC did not have to foot the bill for managing more tourism on conservation land.
Options included charging for car parking, a border tax, or fees to access national parks.
Parker said more work was under way on possible charging options, including looking at visitor fees in overseas national parks, such as in Australia and the United States.
"We can't stick our head in the sand because, if we get another million visitors when we're already at capacity, what will we do?
"We are very keen that those key roles of looking after biodiversity, our flora and fauna, and our marine reserves don't get disadvantaged by this increase in tourism."
DOC director-general Lou Sanson said in his report presented to the authority's meeting last week that it was seeing record numbers of international visitors at certain spots.
Critical points included the Tongariro Crossing in the central North Island, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on the West Coast, Aoraki/Mt Cook, and Milford Sound.
"Keeping up with and ahead of the increasing use of conservation land for tourism will be a key focus this year," he said.
"We expect 600,000 visitors at Milford this year and 90 per cent are international. Currently, peak days are 1000 vehicles at Milford Sound and peaks of 140 vehicles with 500 people camping overnight at Milford road campsites like Cascade Creek.
"Last year saw the car park full on 18 days – it is expected that will double this year."
He said there was "very heavy demand" on some of the Great Walks, including the Routeburn and Kepler tracks, plus record numbers on the Te Araroa trail.
"The biggest single cost to our Great Walks and Milford campsites operation is human waste. Ranger Ken Bradley estimates we will need to shift 40 tonnes of human waste at a cost of $100,000 by end of the season."