We must avoid the privatisation by stealth of our backcountry and wilderness
OPINION: How to nurture the adolescent tourism industry into seemly adulthood is the subject of conversations nationwide.
In its infancy, its organic growth was noted with cooing approval. Now, it needs boundaries. Recent announcements on managing it have included higher charges for overseas tourists, more infrastructure, and new Great Walks "products" (Government), as well as Great Walks price hikes (the Department of Conservation). There's also been a gambit for Conservation Act change and privatisations (Tourism Industry Aotearoa).
But Federated Mountain Clubs believes some crucial bits have been missing. Planning, for instance. Conservation and ordinary New Zealanders. Evidence that the proffered remedies really will fix some of tourism's problems without creating more, such as instant inundation of new Great Walks along with their environs.
FMC is just one of many voices calling for a national tourism strategy. It's needed; the industry's demands of DOC and some local bodies are causing harm necessitating more than first aid. But tourism-watchers should remember there's a big part of the plan already in place – the cool-headed legislation driving the conservation space. The law. Which says that tourism needs to know its place, and that it's a deferential one.
The Conservation Act ranks DOC's priorities: conservation; then recreation (to be "fostered", says the Act); and then tourism (to be "allowed"). The National Parks Act says parks are to "be preserved as far as possible in their natural state". The Acts are our clear consensus on keeping our wild places wild. And they honour our recreation heritage.
That's important. While tourism and homegrown recreation can look similar, their kaupapa are different. Branding and GDP are industry torchsongs while quiet common goods such as belonging, the freedom of the hills, and food-gathering underpin our recreation. The first is business; the second, part of nationhood. It is DOC's job to articulate and defend these distinctions as part of putting Aotearoa's conservation legislation into effect.
You'd think championing the heartland stuff of that law would be easy votes for politicians of all hues, akin to torch-bearing for farming or rugby or family values. There are no downsides to speaking for a healthy backcountry and recreation.
Yet DOC is treated with ongoing disengagement and parsimony by Government. Given this, it's unsurprising the TIA saw a chance to make advances on our Conservation Act. It's the second recent industry test drive of law change proposals, following November's McKinsey Report suggesting Conservation and National Parks Acts changes.
It's a disingenuous privatisation bid featuring an array of straw men: that DOC isn't coping with tourist numbers (true, but trusting it to run its own patch with proper funding would help); that commercial interests get conservation work done (only the conspicuous, charismatic stuff); and that the Conservation Act should therefore be changed to suit the TIA (a fair-weather industry group).
This is dangerous. The TIA has nothing to lose and plenty to gain. Its superficially charming case could win over politicians and public, allowing commercial enclaves and entitlement in Aotearoa's wild places. Conservation law change could be a magnificent party for tourism with a costly hangover for ordinary Kiwis' rights to the freedoms of our hills.
FMC believes that if we didn't already have our Conservation and National Parks Acts, their spirit and intent would be exactly what we'd be calling for now, to articulate and enshrine what we have and value. Their words have got to mean something. They should be neither quietly marginalised nor formally changed.
The Acts should be a cornerstone of the wider tourism strategy we so evidently need. The industry will be a good citizen in our public conservation space if Government and DOC insist on existing ground rules: conservation and recreation are priorities; following their satisfaction, tourism may have its licence to operate.
Jan Finlayson is vice-president of Federated Mountain Clubs, the national association of climbing and tramping clubs. It is a voluntary body representing more than 80 clubs, 20,000 members, and 300,000 people recreating annually in New Zealand's backcountry.