U-turn over tourism drug tests

Mandatory drug testing for the adventure tourism industry has been shelved because it would cost too much, a new report reveals.

An investigation into drug use in the industry began after cannabis was found in the systems of workers involved in the fatal Carterton hot-air balloon crash last year and the 2010 Fox Glacier plane crash, which together caused 20 deaths.

In May, Prime Minister John Key promised to do everything he could to protect the adventure tourism industry, including investigating mandatory drug testing.

However, a Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry report now says mandatory testing is too expensive.

The decision has been labelled a "disgrace" by the father of a British man who died in the Fox Glacier crash. Chris Coker's son, Bradley, died along with eight others when the Skydive New Zealand plane crashed.

Coker said that without mandatory drug testing, the adventure tourism industry would continue its lax approach to safety.

"It's downright disgraceful that people come to this country and aren't aware of this attitude," he said.

Light regulations announced in September - which require operators to show they had a plan to manage drug and alcohol risks - did not go far enough, he said.

"Although it's something, it's not enough. It's not going to cure the problem."

An investigation found no evidence that cannabis was a contributing factor in the Fox Glacier crash, blaming instead an overloaded and unbalanced plane. But Coker believed drug use did play a part and reflected a relaxed attitude to safety.

"People can do what they like but when they have responsibility for someone else's life they should treat it with respect."

The report found that although mandatory drug testing would ensure the highest "assurance of safety", it would also have the highest compliance costs.

Many adventure tourism operators were based in remote locations and it would be difficult and costly for the ministry to monitor them.

"[Mandatory drug testing] has the potential to impose additional costs on businesses and is not consistent with the nature and the requirements of the industry," the report says.

It recommended a less onerous option, requiring operators to develop a plan to deal with the risk.

The recommendation was made after consultation with the industry, including the Tourism Industry Association, which opposed even the lighter regulations, arguing the industry could improve itself.

Association advocacy manager Geoff Ensor said the industry welcomed more guidance on drugs and alcohol but had not wanted extra regulation.

Some adventure operators already carried out mandatory drug testing while others did not, he said. "Making it mandatory would have been a big step and not necessarily the most informed one."

Tourists who participate in adventure tourism spent about $4.1 billion in 2011. Roughly one in four international tourists tries an adventure activity.

The ministry report says recent adventure tourism deaths had probably damaged New Zealand's reputation as a destination, with "significant negative economic implications".

Although it found no evidence of unusually high drug or alcohol use in the sector, risk management was patchy.

Bob Hopkirk of Lower Hutt, whose son Stephen, and his partner Belinda Harter, died in the Carterton balloon crash, said better oversight of drug use in adventure tourism was needed.

The prime minister's office referred the Sunday Star-Times to acting Labour Minister Chris Finlayson.

His spokesman said the lighter option struck the right balance between cost and managing the risk of drugs and alcohol.

Mandatory drug testing could yet be introduced if the industry failed to meet its obligations, he said.

The new regulations were signed off by the Government last week and will be enforced from next month.

They follow other reforms to the adventure tourism industry, prompted by a string of deaths blamed on safety failings.

All adventure tourism operators are now required to register with the ministry and undergo a safety audit at least every three years, replacing the previous system of voluntary audits.

The audits are already under way, with about 450 operators lodging plans with the ministry. All operators must be audited by November 2014 to continue to operate.

Sunday Star Times