Tom O'Connor: Kiwi ratepayers caught in tourism trap

New Zealand's pristine scenery is in danger of being overwhelmed by ever increasing numbers of tourists.
KIRK HARGREAVES/FAIRFAX NZ

New Zealand's pristine scenery is in danger of being overwhelmed by ever increasing numbers of tourists.

OPINION: Like a persistent sponging relative no one wants to offend, the tourism industry is again asking for massive amounts of money from taxpayers and ratepayers.

Local Government New Zealand claims 47 councils have more than 683 tourism-related projects in development at a cost of about $1.38 billion. No one, it seems, wants to ask the question: Why should ratepayers fund this self-serving exploitative and damaging industry over and above any other industry?

Our district councils appear to lack the courage, common sense or ability to tell the tourist industry to fund their own promotions. When regional councils spend ratepayers' money it is generally to mitigate and control the adverse impacts of agriculture and other industries. When the Government spends millions of taxpayers' dollars monitoring and controlling the fishing industry it is to ensure fish stocks are protected from over harvest. Only the tourism industry it seems assumes the right to tap into ratepayers for promotion and to meet the demand for essential infrastructure they create.

While the Government has made an extra $5.5m available for new tourism facilities with an increase from $12m to $17.5m to help pay for toilets, carparks, waste disposal and minor water projects, the money will come from an under-spent fund for the development of high quality visitor attractions.

Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule has rightly said paying for the (tourism) projects was well beyond the resources of local communities. Many smaller district councils struggle to provide essential infrastructure for their ratepayers let alone massive increases for an industry which brings little in the way of extra rates to pay for them.

Yule was, however, wrong to suggest there was an urgent need to address funding for tourism infrastructure. No there isn't. There is a need to put urgent and effective constraints on the tourism industry to protect New Zealand from the ravages of visiting hordes while there is still something of our wild and special places to protect.

A case in point is Matamata where the Hobbiton set from the Lord of the Rings movie series is attracting increasing numbers of tourists. While some businesses, established to take advantage of the situation, are doing well, others in the community are frustrated and angry. Increased traffic flows and too many visitors have put a strain on existing infrastructure, from public toilets to car parking.

Too many small communities have fallen in the trap of assuming tourism will be good for them. It won't be without checks and balances. It will change some communities beyond recognition and drive some people out of their home towns. A visit to Queenstown will demonstrate how dramatic that can be. Most of the original residents of what was a small remote town some 40 years ago were rated out their family homes as property values skyrocketed. Native born New Zealanders are now a minority and most businesses are designed for and operated by foreign nationals.

It is not New Zealand town any more but a tourism hub making millions for tourism operators, many of whom are based in other countries.

A visit to Milford Sound at the height of the summer tourism season will shock and sadden those unprepared for the spectacle of over-crowding at what was once a remote and beautiful place. Also in summer we have processions of dangerous campervan drivers on our highways, human waste on our bush tracks and many scenic places closed to locals all thanks in part to unmitigated tourism which assumes the right to dip into the pockets of ratepayers and taxpayers to fund their industry.

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Up until now those who have warned that a lack of adequate infrastructure, particularly public toilets, was becoming a serious problem were simply ignored. That reality has arrived like an unwelcome relative demanding more of our money and it is time to say no!

They will probably plead that tourism brings jobs and extra money that eventually flows into the nation's economy. This is far from the truth and we can say that about all industries but they don't come demanding millions of dollars to support them.

Without doubt tourism is important to our economy but, like the overgrown dairy industry, we need constraints to bring some balance to the situation or we risk irreparable damage to the very things tourists come here to see.

We also risk dispossessing New Zealanders, whose heritage is being exploited by unmitigated tourism. We don't need more taxpayer and ratepayer investment in tourism, we need fewer tourists. Not just a few hundred less but tens of thousands less.

 - Stuff

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