When camping stinks

It would not be unfair to say members of the Otago Conservation Board are a group of somewhat "unhappy campers".

Their call for a national ban on the use of campervans smacks of a cause in search of publicity.

If their initiative in voting unanimously to draft a letter to their Department of Conservation seniors, calling on the Government to create legislation towards such a ban, has raised a fair old stink, they would say it is nothing compared to what the tourists in their four-wheeled portable tents are doing to the countryside.

Such a ban is, of course, a far-fetched proposal and is highly unlikely to gain serious traction, but it might be argued that the board, in promoting it, has done the country, the rental vehicle and tourism industries, and regional and district authorities a favour.

There is strong evidence that the problem is escalating, that measures to date have done very little to contain it, and that concerted and decisive action is required sooner rather than later.

It is not a new problem.

For several years now, the issue has arisen intermittently as the influx of visitors, primarily during the summer months, has made itself felt often in the most anti-social of ways - and to the cost of both the environment and local councils charged with cleaning up the mess.

In the Dunedin environs, freedom campers are especially evident on the Otago Peninsula and along the Brighton-Taieri Mouth coast, leading to issues over rubbish bins, toilets and waste disposal sites; North Otago has its problems, and Central Otago has grappled with similar issues, too, around Lake Dunstan.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council is particularly familiar with the problem, having incorporated local rules on freedom camping into the Traffic and Parking Bylaw 2006.

But its attempts to inculcate in visitors appropriate behaviour through education appear to have met with limited success, as Queenstown Mayor Clive Geddes admitted last week following an outburst of frustration on the part of Kingston residents infuriated by the littering of lay-bys and beaches with detritus and "human waste".

The major problem in most areas appears to be the proliferation at the cheaper end of the "campervan" market: the converted people movers and pop-tops that have room for not much more than a mattress in the back and some personal effects, including cooking equipment.

Mostly these vehicles do not have toilet facilities, and tend to be rented and driven by younger, budget-conscious "freedom" campers - the mobile equivalent of the backpacker.

Some of these visitors, whether foreign or domestic, will be entirely responsible, respectful of the environment in which they find themselves and mindful of the common courtesies and behavioural expectations that all societies habitually apply.

But obviously a great number are not, and the challenge for the various authorities is to come up with cost-effective strategies to curtail the despoliation of the country's quiet beauty spots.

It is time the Ministry of Tourism, the Department of Conservation, camper van/rental companies and council representatives got together to thrash out just such a plan of action.

Kingston residents wanted Mr Geddes to sanction "volunteer patrols" to deal with illegal camping, but this notion is fraught with difficulty and potential conflict.

Others have suggested some kind of licensing scheme to make rental companies responsible for their customers' actions.

To these could be added a "good behaviour" bond, again applied through the rental companies, forfeited in lieu of court proceedings for illegal actions while camping.

The provision of further amenities - such as Doc-style camping spots - and education should not be jettisoned entirely.

Budget travelling is an increasingly popular way to see the country and draconian measures may prove counterproductive.

The publication of lists of public facilities, along with increased awareness of the rules about freedom camping, might help, as well as a campaign to reinforce the downsides of careless waste disposal.

Whether it be a shaded spot in the bush, by the sea, a lake, a river, a scenic mountain lay-by, the sheer wild and uncontaminated beauty of this country's "front lawn" is, after all, what draws tourists to it.

How ironic it would be should the various authorities and organisations fail to confront those same tourists with the blighting consequences of their action on this very environment - and how utterly unacceptable.


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