Should New Zealand consider introducing some kind of charge for overseas visitors using huts in our national parks? Jill Worrall, who has visited, over 70 countries, mostly as a tour manager, puts the idea into some global perspective and suggests we don't stop at hut charges but introduce a general national park fee for overseas visitors.
It's a small country, rather remote, with a fragile mountainous environment, distinctive indigenous culture, a growing reliance on tourism and a strong emphasis on promoting outdoor activities in unspoiled landscapes.
Sounds like it must be New Zealand, doesn't it? But in fact the country I have in mind is the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
If you're a little geographically challenged on the whereabouts of Bhutan just visualise the Indian sub-continent with Nepal nestled in the Himalayas at the top with, to the right, the Indian state of Sikkim and, to its right, Bhutan.
Ever since Bhutan opened its doors to tourists in 1974 it has taken the approach of high-value, low-volume tourism. Unlike Nepal, with which it shares physical and cultural similarities, there are no backpackers in Bhutan; no streets packed with cheap guest houses; no foreign coffee houses and no rapacious salespeople.
If you want to visit Bhutan you can only do so if you are willing to pay the Government-set rate of US$250 per person per day (the high season charge.) For this money you will receive 3-star accommodation, all your meals, transport, an English-speaking guide and entry fees. In recent years, as four and five-star hotels or lodges have opened in Bhutan, a surcharge has been added for those wanting a higher standard of accommodation. (It's possible to spend at least US$1000 a night for some of the most luxurious and exclusive resorts).
There are no exclusions to this tariff (other than for visitors from India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives) so the result is that travellers on lower budgets are excluded, plus visitors tend not to stay in Bhutan for extended periods. Shorter visits, especially in places with sensitive environments and vulnerable traditional cultures, are known to have less impact on both.
What makes this tariff system especially interesting for New Zealanders now considering whether some kind of fee should be introduced for overseas tourists using our national parks, is that the Bhutanese Government takes $65 of each tariff. This money is used to help fund Bhutan's free education and health system, and for developing the country's tourist infrastructure.
Bhutan has a poverty rate of 12 per cent (the proportion of the population living on less than US$1.25 per day) with the figure rising to over 30 per cent in rural areas, which is most of the country. The income from tourism, therefore, is seen as a viable way to improve the country's living standards.
In 1974, the first year Bhutan was open to tourists, it received 287 foreign visitors. That figure is now up to about 64,000. Clearly, the imposition of a tariff has not hindered a 22,200 per cent increase in visitor numbers.
Now, clearly we don't need tourists to directly fund our education and health systems (or maybe we do ...) but in my opinion, we could do with some extra funds for maintaining our national parks and wider conservation estate.
Bhutan is certainly not the only country in the world that imposes a specific fee on visitors. I would imagine no one from New Zealand who has ever visited the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has even blinked at the $A5.50 per full day Environmental Management Charge that everyone pays if they visit the reef.
We have natural treasures just as spectacular and as globally significant as the Great Barrier Reef, so why are we so nervous about charging visitors to help us maintain and conserve them? I agree wholeheartedly with David Round of the Aoraki Conservation Board, that this seems to be another manifestation of cultural cringe. Are we worried that if we impose a fee people won't come because they don't think we as a nation are worth it?
Every person who visits Tanzania's national parks such as Serengeti or Ngorongoro pays a US$50 a day national park fee. That's considered expensive but there's no shortage of people on safari in Africa (just ask anyone who's braved the breakfast buffet in one of Tanzania's larger safari hotels).
The precedents go on and on. So, what is surprising is firstly why we're not considering at least a higher hut fee, secondly why just a hut fee and lastly what's taken us so long?
There have been suggestions in the past that by introducing a charge for overseas tourists we're exploiting our visitors by expecting them to pay more than we do. Which again doesn't hold water if you consider the idea in a global context.
For example, if I visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, it will cost me the equivalent of NZ$14 but an Indian national will pay just 40 cents. Which is as it should be. The Taj Majal first and foremost belongs to the Indians, it's part of their heritage, so entry fees need to be realistic for the millions of Indians on very low incomes. I can afford to pay more so should do so. You might hear a few grumbles in the queues before the sunrise opening but the Indians are not going to balk because of that - they know they have an attraction worth what is still an incredibly reasonable fee to see and make no apologies. We should take note.
Over the last few years I've been staggered to see how busy our national parks and walks have become, especially over the main summer tourist season; you only need to watch the number of people on glacier view walks or circuiting the Punakaiki blowholes as just two examples to appreciate the increased pressure on the paths themselves, on toilet facilities and in terms of the environment itself, on the flora and fauna of the area concerned.
Certainly, implementing a fee might prove administratively complex but if the fee is levied on arrival, for example, or in the case of people travelling with groups, through their tour package costs, the process could be simplified.
If a fee was collected at our airports it might slow the arrival process down. However, as we believe it's important enough to search tourists' bags at our airports and thus delay their entry into the country for a few minutes in order to protect our agricultural industry surely a few minutes more to protect our national parks (and thus our tourism industry, which is also a major contributor to our foreign exchange earnings) isn't going to make a big difference.
Underpinning any debate on national park charges is perhaps a worry that any attempt to do so will impact on our desire for more and more tourists. Again, maybe we should look to Bhutan here, which although under pressure now to accommodate more visitors, is still maintaining its hig-value, low-volume approach. It's probably too late to do that here now but maybe we should consider setting some kind of threshold both to protect our environment and in the process enhance our reputation as a more exclusive destination. Maybe in a small way a fee is a good way to begin this process.
The phrase "killing the goose that lays the golden egg" is incredibly apt when it comes to tourism. Last European summer I was in St Petersburg and in Dubrovnik during peak cruise ship season. It was obvious that the local infrastructures in places such as Catherine's Palace or the whole of Dubrovnik's old town were totally unable to cope with the sheer volume of people descending on one place in the same short period of time. Do we want the same scenarios played out here?
We should be taking more pride in what we have to offer travellers; be prepared to stand up for what we value and not fret that if we do so people "won't come".
Do we really want to do the equivalent of advertising a party on Facebook?
We could do a lot worse than take a leaf from the Bhutanese example: cultivate a sense of exclusivity, be proud of the standards we set, make no apology for our fees and attract the kind of tourists who will appreciate what we have and help us take care of it.
- The Timaru Herald