A change of mind over charging for access to national parks

A change of mind over charging for access to national parks

Being busy with exciting projects including space launch tourism, bike trails, business scoping, a lodge development plus a whole lot more is my excuse for being missing in action from the blogosphere for more than a few months.  And for those interested, I'll be sharing much more about all these projects over the coming months.

But, having recently attended TRENZ, what’s really occupied my thinking over the last couple of weeks is how New Zealand can possibly manage the projected growth in tourism.   Here are some of my thoughts, published in last week’s TIA publication:

After years of vocalising my firm belief in the right to freely access New Zealand’s public conservation land and all it offers, I’ve changed my mind. To protect and manage these special places I believe there should be a targeted differential fee for access to some of our most treasured, and now heavily used, natural areas. 

I’ve had more than 40 years recreating, protecting and working in our national parks. This experience, together with an insight into the coming growth in tourism, has me extremely concerned about the future funding of New Zealand’s protected area management. It’s time to look at new solutions. 

Since 2000 visitors to our national parks, particularly international visitors, have been steady. But since 2013 that picture has changed. Visitor arrivals to New Zealand have gone from 2.6  million three years ago to nearly 3.4 million in 2016. Analysis and predictions indicate this figure will increase significantly by 2020 - potentially to  4.2 million or more. 

These visitor arrivals flow into our most popular scenic areas - Cape Reinga, Huka Falls, Tongariro, including the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Aoraki Mt Cook, Able Tasman, the glaciers at Westland, Milford (700, 000 visitors) and Doubtful Sounds and Stewart Island.  Social and environmental pressure such as crowding, traffic, people, noise, waste and increasing demand on facilities need to be actively managed.

It’s obvious that the current annual  funding for DOC, about $ 390 million,  is severely limited and not able to keep up with the demands of managing key visitor sites. 

I believe it’s timely to continue the debate and robust discussion on how to fund long-term, sustainable management.of our National Parks and conservation areas. Putting up gates and closing our special places is a difficult option, as would erecting  ‘full-up’ signs. Controlling numbers is a management tool that is already used on the Milford Track and at some ski areas.We can continue this approach, for example on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which currently has over 100,000 walkers a year.These pressured special  areas need to be cared for not only for the benefit of future generations of New Zealanders and visitors, but for the whenua, for the environment's sake, as well. 

Elsewhere in the world visitors not only expect to pay for the privilege of enjoying national parks, they believe it’s right to contribute. They also expect, from our 100% Pure NZ brand, a well managed national parks service. Internationally, many parks have far greater pressure and use innovative management approaches

For a sustainable, healthy New Zealand it’s in our interest to seek solutions. I’m not inventing mechanisms here, but one suggestion is to trial and assess a targeted national park entry fee.  The precedent already exists with the current visitor levy to Stewart Island, collected as a visitor fee ($5 a visit).

By selecting up to ten of our internationally most popular sites and collecting an entry fee there is the potential to raise $30-50 million a year, or more. That would go a long way to help financially manage  these, and other special places, and it’s an approach that would provide direct income from our predominantly overseas visitors. 

The technology exists and by using modern fee collection systems, pricing for visitors and heavily discounted entry fees for New Zealanders we may be able to manage the continual and escalating visitor impacts. There’s an opportunity as well to create regional economic dispersal.

Being afraid to have this debate, in other words doing nothing, will only result in decay of the quality of our national parks and special places.  Let’s continue to focus on the challenge of managing our special conservation lands for our future generations, and accept the need to fund the management of visitor impacts on our national parks through targeted fees. 


Posted: Wednesday 1 June 2016

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