Tourism changes sought

There is no beating about the bush in the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s follow-up report on the impact of tourism on the environment.

Simon Upton made it clear a year ago in his first report, "Pristine, popular ... imperilled?" that we were headed down the imperilled path if we took a business-as-usual approach to tourism.

The Covid-19 crisis has not changed his view.

He does not go along with the argument that now is not the right time to try to shift the tourism sector on to a more sustainable footing. As he puts it, there will never be a good time. In many ways there might never be a better time to move in the direction he suggests, beginning the transition to a type of tourism which is less environmentally harmful and more resilient than its predecessor. Without the pressure of business as usual there is some breathing space to properly consider better ways of operating.

He says there is broad support for the idea that protecting tourism livelihoods in the short term should not "morph into a slow but inexorable return to the status quo in the long term".

Mr Upton draws attention to the excessive marketing hype around tourism, advertising which is increasingly at odds with reality.

He is calling time on special treatment for tourism from the public purse, pointing out that in many cases, the support provided for tourism has not been available to other parts of the economy. Also, that spending has not properly addressed the environmental pressures resulting from tourism. In 2019, for instance, although the Government spent more than $200million, less than $50million was spent on mitigating environmental effects.

He recognises it is the Government’s prerogative to decide what to support but it cannot ignore the fact spending to foster tourism growth materially contributes to environmental pressure.

"Treating tourism in much the same way as any other sector of the economy would be desirable from an environmental perspective."

Some investment in mitigating infrastructure has helped ease some pressures but it has largely been deaf to concerns about growth, Mr Upton says.

One of his four recommendations addresses the need for community involvement in tourism planning and would require future central government funding for tourism infrastructure to be conditional on environmental criteria and also aligned with mana whenua and the local community’s vision for tourism development.

This idea will be welcomed by people who have found they have had little or no say in what has happened in their communities when they suddenly became tourist hot spots.

Those concerned about the damage caused by irresponsible freedom camping will also appreciate his recommendation to strengthen existing standards for self-contained freedom camping, improve oversight of the certifying process and require rental car agencies to play a greater role in collecting freedom camping infringement fees and fines.

His proposal for a departure tax, using the revenue to support the development of low emissions aviation technology and provide climate finance for Pacific Island nations may cause consternation among some travelling New Zealanders who may be reluctant to see themselves as part of the problem.

Mr Upton also wants to strengthen the Department of Conservation’s ability to address the loss of wildness and natural quiet at some of our most spectacular natural attractions, tightening up rules around commercial activity.

The report makes it clear the measures suggested are not the complete answer to the environmental problems posed by tourism, but if introduced they could make a difference.

This approach is a wise one. There is a real opportunity here for the Government and the sector to start grappling with these issues, using the breathing space enforced by the pandemic. Ignoring the commissioner should not be an option.

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