Here's why we need to start charging for access to tourist hotspots

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
22 March, 2021

The recipe for creating conflict over scarce and congestible resources is really rather simple.

Start with beautiful natural spaces that attract visitors. Don’t let communities develop ways of limiting or managing access to those public areas. Instead, make sure the most important places are inside the Department of Conservation’s estate, and take a policy decision that charging for access would be immoral. That will help ensure you never have enough money to build facilities that could both protect the place and provide a better experience for locals and visitors.

Next, run large tourism marketing campaigns abroad. When the tourists come, make sure that local councils are stuck with the infrastructure bills, and that the resulting company tax revenue and GST stays with central government.

Then, when beautiful places are overrun, spend years having conferences about how to promote “higher value” tourism and agonising over environmental damage. Try to figure which visitors in particular are to blame. Is it backpackers who don’t spend enough, ignoring that backpacking abroad is also part of the Kiwi OE? Is it the bus tours that run the circuit of the sites, with the tour operators who sold tickets abroad getting most of the benefit? Or is it really those rich foreigners who’ll charter a helicopter to take them to the melting glaciers, have a nice dinner, and helicopter back out?

And when locals ask for investment in improved tracks and better toileting facilities to improve the experience for everyone, spend a lot of time worrying that those investments will just encourage even more visitors. Because it would, if there is no way of charging for access. 

Don’t spend much time wondering whether part of the problem might simply be that access to scarce resources carries zero monetary cost. Zero monetary cost does not mean zero cost: visitors instead pay through queues and crowding, ratepayers pick up increasingly large tabs, and the environment bears its own substantial burden.

If someone proposes charging for parking at a place like Roy’s Peak in Queenstown, just brush it aside. The Department of Conservation has more important things to do than administer parking, after all. And we can ignore that plenty of private companies would be willing to pay for the right to manage the parking.

It sounds ridiculous when put that bluntly. And it is ridiculous.

But, finally, it may be set to change.

Last week, Otago University’s Tourism Policy School held its annual conference in Queenstown. I attended, ready to make the case for charging for access to places that suffer from overcrowding. But I found I was hardly the only one arguing for it.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report on tourism, released in February, had also made the case for charging for access. The report highlighted the fees charged for park access abroad, and that those fees often differentiated between international tourists and locals. International tourists then can help fund better infrastructure, environmental remediation, and a better experience for local visitors.

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash also found it absurd that New Zealand just gives away some of the most scenic experiences in the world. He pointed out that charging for access can solve some of the problems.

It is pretty easy to see how the country got itself into this situation, but that makes it no less frustrating. For most of the period since colonisation, visitor numbers really have not been high enough to substantially degrade either the environment or the experience at New Zealand’s most scenic places. When there is no real scarcity, there is no real need to try to manage scarcity. Kiwis came to see zero-price access to national parks as something of a birthright.

But visitor numbers quadrupled from 1990 to 2019. And while tourists came to contribute some $1.8 billion in GST per year while here, central government only recently allocated $25 million per year to improve infrastructure in places tourists visit. Tourists, overall, may well be more than paying their own way. But they’re doing it in ways that don’t wind up helping to preserve and restore the places that they, and we, care about. The Tourism Infrastructure Fund seems only a drop in the bucket.

The overall setup almost guarantees conflict.

Greater reliance on user-fees, with higher fees for international visitors than for locals, would help. And so too would greater assistance from central government in funding the bits of infrastructure that are hard to manage through user fees. Pay toilets, for example, can too easily encourage nearby messes.

Access fees would not solve every problem. But, by limiting visitor demand and providing a steady stream of funding to maintain and regenerate the areas beloved by Kiwis and visitors alike, they are an important part of the solution. And they would help reduce conflict over precious places.

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