Government brushing off tourist levy as freedom campers put the pressure on NZ
OPINION: How disappointing it was to read that Tourism Minister Paula Bennett does not consider the implementation of a tourist levy necessary "at the moment".
Just why she takes this stance at a time when the number of overseas visitor arrivals is hovering near the three million mark is difficult to fathom. This figure is about one-third higher than it was just four years ago and the burden for providing the infrastructure for these additional visitors is falling largely on local authorities, i.e. the ratepayers.
The minister's rejection came in response to a recent plea by mayors in the south of the South Island, asking the Government for more money to cope with the problems created by the burgeoning number of freedom campers.
The mayors of Mackenzie, Waitaki, Southland, Central Otago, Clutha and Gore penned a joint plea to the Prime Minister to reconsider a tourist levy after a previous entreaty had failed. It was pleasing to see that their appeal was supported by the mayors of the Timaru and Waimate districts.
Quite why the Government is so opposed to introducing a levy is hard to fathom. It's hardly a novel concept and one already implemented in several other countries.
For instance, South Africa imposes a 1 per cent levy to be paid by visitors for services and travel within the republic, the money to be used to promote South Africa as a tourist destination.
Near neighbour Botswana is planning to also levy visitors to fund the costs of tourism.
Botswana's tax of about $40, to be introduced next month, is being earmarked for improvements to Mana airport, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The terminal has been labelled a "national embarrassment" and the government is obviously planning to do something about it.
The Botswana levy will even have to be paid by day-trippers, despite the fact they will be spending only a few hours in the country.
Speaking about the levy only a few days ago, the Minister of Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, said Botswana was not the first country to impose levies, "in fact other countries have been imposing levies such as carbon emissions and other levies, which are hidden".
Botswana is to be applauded for being up front about the levy, rather than introducing covert charges. New Zealand would do well to follow this example.
Nearer to home, visitors need a park pass to visit Uluru in Australia's Northern Territory. An adult pays $25 to view the iconic rock and Parks Australia justifies the cost by saying the proceeds are to help maintain the infrastructure and the environment.
Those are exactly the reasons being espoused by the southern mayors as justification for the introduction of a tourist levy here. The cost of funding and maintaining extra toilet facilities, disposing of rubbish and providing decent amenities should not be borne by the ratepayer alone.
Yes, the Government is providing some money through the Regional Mid-Sized Tourism Facilities Grants Fund, but $12 million spread over four years, and many areas, is nowhere near enough.
If a fee even as low as $20 was imposed on overseas arrivals this would generate nearly $60 million that could be used to ease the burden faced by local authorities and also considerably swell the Department of Conservation's budget, which has been under severe constraint in recent years.
The Government's reticence to go down this path is hard to understand.
A would-be visitor in the UK or the United States is hardly going to baulk at adding an extra $20 to their holiday-of-a-lifetime budget, especially as some of the alternative destinations may well be charging just as much or even more to protect the integrity of their tourism industry.
The Government would do well to remember what an important contributor to our economy the tourism sector has become. It is New Zealand's largest export industry in terms of foreign exchange earnings.
However, unless action is taken to help local authorities, news of rubbish-strewn areas and deteriorating infrastructure in this country could soon be buzzing through messages on social media and our golden goose could become egg-bound.