Responding to freedom camping

Change is the only constant. So said Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus 2500 years ago and his view is increasingly valid today.

The internet has changed the way music is shared, sold and made. Battery technology is changing the way cars are fuelled. And change is a constant in our tourism industry, too. What tourists want, how they find out what they want, how they get to where they want to be - change is constant.

Freedom camping is changing New Zealand's tourism landscape, becoming an increasingly popular way of experiencing this country. With specialised apps on their tablets or smartphones travellers can easily identify free camping spots, what they offer and what previous visitors thought of them.

Through internet forums and websites they share experiences, ask questions and prepare better using insider knowledge.

In an age where people are becoming increasingly disconnected, travellers are flocking to human, earthy, real encounters. Freedom camping is here to stay, at least for the time being.

Its rise brings immediate concerns. Who pays for the camping spots? Who cleans them? Do the campers contribute to the local economy? Do they obey the rules? Essentially, do we want them?

Dunedin overhauled its freedom camping rules last year, voting in a new bylaw. Under the bylaw, freedom camping is prohibited in some areas, including all scenic reserves and cemeteries, as well as specific areas such as parts of Otago Peninsula.

It also sets out areas those without self-contained vehicles can use overnight. Ocean View Recreation Reserve provides for non self-contained vehicles. Warrington Domain provides for non self-contained vehicles and tent camping.

This week both sites featured in the news as frustrated residents pointed out problems created by a spike of freedom campers.

Limited rubbish and toilet facilities meant campers deposited refuse where they should not. The areas were crowded and the campers were, it seems, not contributing to the economy.

On that final point, at least, research falls in favour of the campers. A 2012 study showed freedom campers spent roughly 50% more money per person in Dunedin than cruise ship passengers. It also showed money was spent in areas not associated with traditional tourism. Groceries and petrol were prominent.

An Otago Daily Times visit to the Warrington Domain campsite this week showed well-behaved tourists willing to spend their money in Dunedin. But where they wanted to stay, and the experience they sought, meant spending significantly on accommodation was not part of their plans.

They wanted freedom, they wanted space, they wanted a raw environment and they wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people: adventurers with stories to tell.

They said they were happy to pay if donation boxes were available. They did not want to litter or use sand dunes as toilets.

If freedom camping really is here to stay, and the money those campers spend is as big as claimed, Dunedin has the opportunity to benefit. Which other New Zealand city offers a hinterland as accessible and beautiful? Which other New Zealand city could, with relative ease and small expense, offer as wide a range of freedom camping sites close to world class attractions and a thriving CBD?

Enterprise Dunedin director John Christie has said his team will discuss the need for more freedom camping sites with Dunedin City Council staff. There should be no delay.

As reasonable as it is for Warrington and Ocean View residents to defend their patch from overcrowded camp sites, it is equally sensible for Dunedin to respond to this changing tourism trend as it begins its inexorable rise.

Tourism trends will keep changing. And Dunedin should be willing to keep changing with them.

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