Editorial: It would be $5 well spent

Last updated 05:00 20/09/2013

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OPINION: Editorial: When you consider the sometimes indecent haste with which hefty tax measures can be whisked through Parliament, the fact that it took 35 years to approve a $5 levy for most visitors to Stewart Island looks cautious to a fault.

In truth, most of that delay was in planning and for the locals, including local government, to commit. They hardly stampeded to the option, as evidenced by those 15 forlorn years trying to persuade tourism operators into a voluntary koha.

The local consultation process was robust and there were certainly challenges, but the view that prevailed was not only the majority one, it was the right one.

Some resistance also struck at Parliamentary and departmental level once Invercargill MP Eric Roy introduced the bill, including unease about the perceived need to closely define a "tourist" - which was a bit of a red herring when it proved easier to define a modest-enough list of exemptions.

Mainland southerners, or most of us anyway, will have to pay. That may grate with some. But when the islanders stick their hands out for the levy they can look any of us - Southlanders, New Zealanders, tourists - in the eye as they do so.

That's because they are a tiny ratepaying base that can hardly be expected to provide the level of amenities reasonably required to cope with large numbers of tourists, oftentimes arriving with something of a whumph, such as when a large cruise ship disgorges its admirers.

The visitor exemption list was always going to be a mite testy, but it's a sensible compromise including partners or dependants of island residents, under-18s and people staying for three continuous weeks or more - but not tradespeople or volunteers.

Those caught ducking their share may be hit with a $250 fine. Any need to invoke that penalty would be reduced if sufficient care is taken to ensure arrivals know what the money is being spent on, and that it's for the so-very-basics such as footpaths to keep vehicles and pedestrians safely distinct from each other.

Some visitors may ask, well, why doesn't the Government pay? They should be congratulated, immediately, on their inquisitorial instincts and be given Bill English's Parliamentary number so he can explain. We do seem to recall that back in 2005, when the then Tourism Minister Mark Burdon came up with the far-less-palatable idea of limiting visitor numbers to under-pressure destinations, Mr English in Opposition was quick to ridicule that suggestion and to say that having triggered increased tourism through the establishment of the Rakiura National Park, the Government should come up with the dollars to fix the problem it helped create.

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The bill did, ultimately, pass through Parliament with support from all sides. Some of the delays leading up to that were hiccups, such as consideration being bumped by the sometimes hair-triggered practice of the House sitting under urgency to discuss other matters slightly dearer to the hearts of the Government at the time. But there was also resistance on the basis of precedent.

About that . . . let's not throw our hands up at the thought that this practice might be tolerable elsewhere. The idea of bed taxes in areas with heavy and demanding tourist traffic, and small ratepayer bases, should be regarded carefully for fear of indulgent grabs, but not dismissed out of hand.

As for the Stewart Island visitors, it would be a malnourished soul indeed who departed that island, ecological and cultural marvel that it is, with the $5 fee standing significantly in their memories.

- The Southland Times

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