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Some of the most beautiful places imaginable are to be found in New Zealand's 14 national parks. Mountains, diverse landscapes and places of interest extend from the bush and hills of Te Urewera through the golden sands of Abel Tasman and to the fiords and wilderness of Fiordland.
New Zealanders are proud of them, the Department of Conservation has, on the whole, displayed balanced and thoughtful stewardship and it is estimated 30% of international tourists visit at least one.
But, of course, they come at a cost of many millions through administration, management, pest control and provision of facilities and services, with the long-suffering taxpayer footing the bill. Against this background a briefing paper from the Ministry of Economic Development to Tourism Minister John Key makes the point that access to major government-owned tourism assets are "often free or heavily subsidised".
"Increasing demand from non-residents in such cases may not translate into value for New Zealand," it says.
"Differential pricing" is mentioned, and while noting that challenges would need to be worked through, the paper says such pricing is applied in other places. Without stating it directly, the paper is indicating the possibility of something like a tourist access tax for national parks.
Because tourists do not pay income taxes and because of the pressure their increasing numbers is putting on some of our parks, it is timely to debate these issues.
We believe, however, that debate on charging tourists fees for park use in the New Zealand context will lead to the idea being rejected, primarily because of practicalities. Additionally, it can be argued that the goodwill engendered by free entry more than pays for itself. New Zealand, both because of the distance to travel here and once in the country, is relatively expensive and the bonus of free national parks stimulates positive responses that encourage one of our key industries, tourism.
A Doc study on Fiordland National Park in 2005 is telling.
The park cost about $9 million a year to run, while the added value to the national economy was estimated at $228 million. There were an estimated 560,000 day and 33,000 overnight visitors, with 80% from overseas. In the absence of the park, 10% from overseas said their time in New Zealand would have been shorter and 12% said they would not have come at all. National parks are central to both tourism in New Zealand itself and to its tourist image.
Some tourists do pay Doc, through the services of national park concessionaires should they use them, and it should be pointed out tourists yield substantial GST.
One major practical quandary of charging will be distinguishing between tourists and locals. What about New Zealanders who live in Australia? How will residents establish they are not tourists? How much resentment will be created? What happens when locals escort friends from overseas?
It would seem that any fees would have to apply across the board.
In that case, for a few of our parks, like Aoraki/Mount Cook, a toll gate set up on a single road, through high numbers and administrative simplicity, could generate good net income. But what about parks that straddle the main highway - such as Westland, Paparoa, Arthurs Pass or Mount Aspiring?
Many people will be passing through rather than visiting per se.
In Mount Aspiring's case, too, there are several entry points by road alone. Would each - the Matukituki, beyond Glenorchy, the Haast in both directions - have to be staffed at much cost, and would that be for all or much of the year?
Even something like an honour and spot-check system would be demanding to operate. Charging for park entry does take place in many parts of the world, including some parks in Australia and the United States. This is often per vehicle, a system that works with limited numbers of entrances and with sufficient numbers to make administrative costs worthwhile.
But New Zealand's national parks are too scattered and too diverse and any charging could, at most, be targeted only for a few significant places. Overall, the loss of goodwill, the drawbacks and the difficulties of charging outweigh any financial benefits.