Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult supports any logical proposals for tourism that better look after the environment, but says a new report paints the industry as an "ogre".
In a report released yesterday, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton proposed several policies aimed at drastically reducing the industry’s impact on the environment.
While acknowledging the Covid-19 pandemic was threatening the viability of many tourism-related businesses, he claimed there was broad support for the idea that protecting tourism businesses in the short term "should not morph into a slow but inexorable return to the status quo in the long term".
He proposed four policy changes — imposing a departure tax that reflected the environmental cost of flying internationally; making government funding for tourism infrastructure conditional on environmental criteria; strengthening the Department of Conservation’s ability to address "loss of wildness and natural quiet" at key natural attractions; and tightening standards, oversight and enforcement of self-contained freedom camping.
While parts of the report were "worthwhile and thought-provoking", some of the proposals were unrealistic for the industry at a time when it was struggling for survival, Mr Boult said.
Others in the South reacted with a mixture of caution and enthusiasm.
Ziptrek Ecotours owner Trent Yeo, of Queenstown, said a departure tax got closest to addressing the "elephant in the room" of New Zealand tourism, which was the carbon emissions that resulted from long-haul flights to the country.
Mr Yeo said he had long been advocating for Air New Zealand to be the first airline in the world to move to zero-carbon operations, and wanted the Government to push domestic travel in the same direction, possibly through the use of hydrogen energy.
Lake Wanaka Tourism general manager Tim Barke said the proposals were in line with the "regen tourism" approach the industry was moving towards.
In particular, he supported the idea of a departure tax, with the proceeds invested back into tourism-heavy communities and the environment.
Glenorchy Community Association chairman John Glover said the proposals would help the area’s businesses move towards sustainable tourism, including the use of electric-powered planes and jet-boats.
He wanted to see the introduction of a "star rating" of CO2 emissions per trip by operators, which would help influence consumer choice.
Mr Upton said his proposals were not the whole solution, but together "just might make a difference".
The underlying principle was tourists and the businesses that served them should pay for the cost of the environmental services they used.
"Tourism’s growth has been built on special attention and subsidies for decades."
University of Otago tourism lecturer James Higham, who was in Wellington for the report’s launch, said it was timely and needed to be taken seriously.
Of the four policies announced yesterday, the departure tax was the big-ticket item, Prof Higham said.
It could generate up to $400million if tourism returned to pre-Covid levels, but realistically would range from $100million to $400million depending on its level and the numbers of visitors who returned to New Zealand.
"I think these recommendations, while they’re not comprehensive, certainly give us a really good signal on how tourism might be reconfigured when borders reopen."
— Additional reporting by Hamish MacLean.