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Cr Sophie Barker — whose mother arrived in Dunedin in 1967 as a freedom camper — said she had a "soft-spot" for the oft-criticised city visitors, but she was concerned Dunedin City Council parks and recreation planner Stephen Hogg’s 2019-20 season-end freedom camping report showed "free wildlife viewing" remained a top drawcard for Dunedin.
A survey by council community rangers shows nearly 70% of freedom campers were visiting Dunedin beaches, nearly 50% used walking tracks, and about 45% were visiting sites for "free wildlife viewing" — the third most popular overall city attraction.
At this week’s full council meeting, Cr Barker called for the council to "focus in the future on a management plan to protect the city’s wildlife".
After the meeting, she said access to wildlife needed to be managed and should not necessarily be free.
Too often visitors were not contributing to the city’s wildlife conservation efforts, were not educated and imagined Dunedin’s wildlife viewing opportunities to be something like a "petting zoo".
"They don’t understand the ‘wild’ in wild animals," Cr Barker said.
"My concern has been those huge, growing numbers of visitors coming to the kind-of-secret beaches and you see what we could perceive as [for example] the impact on yellow-eyed penguin populations.
"I want us to ... make sure that we have a really good destination management plan — and look after the wildlife."
The 2018 Dunedin destination plan — "which had some worthy objectives"— had not lived up to its promise and needed to be redone.
"We need to get moving on this stuff," Cr Barker said.
She asked at the meeting about staff predictions for the coming freedom camping season, given "just 10%" of freedom campers in Dunedin last year were domestic tourists.
Council acting parks and recreation group manager Scott MacLean said staff were "gearing up for a normal season".
Mr Hogg said the Department of Conservation was projecting a "lumpier" visitation curve.
Cr Christine Garey said the estimated $3.7million spend by freedom campers in the city challenged the stereotype some had of the visitors, and vindicated the welcoming attitude the city had for them.
Only Cr Andrew Whiley voiced concerns otherwise.
He said while there were positives around freedom camping, he remained concerned "at times we are giving our city away".
"Freedom camping can work, but it doesn’t always have to be free.
"We are providing a lot of services to these people ... at the expense in most cases to the campgrounds."