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Paying for paradise

By Rebecca Macfie

Sunday 1st June 2003

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Maybe we should be thankful for Sars. Tourism industry boss George Hickton says the epidemic will mean a 10-15% drop in international tourist numbers this winter. The traditional slow season will be slower than normal. But instead of panicking about the lull, perhaps the tourism industry should take it as an opportunity to pause for thought about its dubious long-term growth strategy.

"Tourist numbers up 7%," sing the press releases from Tourism New Zealand. "Overseas tourists pump $6 billion into economy," chants the Tourism Industry Association. No doubt about it, tourism is big, and the conventional wisdom is that it should get much bigger yet. We pulled in two million international visitors last year, and by 2010 - just seven years away - the industry hopes the number will hit 3.2 million.
Although the industry claims to have moved away from the philosophy that the more bums on seats the better, precious little seems to have been done about shifting the focus from ever increasing numbers to long-tem sustainability.

Think about what draws tourists here. They come because they want to climb on our glaciers, zip down our rivers, gaze at our mountains and hike in our rainforests. They come because New Zealand had the foresight to lock up 30% of its land mass in 14 spectacular national parks and countless reserves.

Our egalitarian sentiment means that we've enshrined in legislation that access to these places should be free for all - not just for New Zealanders who contribute to their upkeep through taxes, but also to foreign tourists who do not. International tourists who tread the boardwalk at the Mirror Lakes on the Milford road or the paved walkway around the pancake rocks at Punakaiki don't pay a bean for the experience - unless they happen to do so as a client of a tourist company operating under a DOC concession. Sure, DOC gets a little bit of revenue from tourist traffic through the national parks - concessionaires pay around $8.3 million for the right to operate private businesses in the DOC estate. Another $7 million is earned through hut fees. But by and large, the $200 million-odd a year it costs to keep the estate running is paid for by you and me.

The assumption that underpins this largesse is that tourists, having enjoyed an outing in the wilderness, will then go back to the towns and cities and spend up at the nation's 13,500-18,000 small to medium-sized tourism enterprises, creating a net gain to New Zealand and its economy. But those enterprises' proprietors wouldn't have a business if it weren't for the taxpayer supplying the raw material for their industry - the conservation estate - for free. And the fact that the industry doesn't have to pay for its most important resource presents a huge incentive to over-use, and eventually destroy, that resource. Visited Franz Josef lately? You might be shocked at how easily paradise is lost when it's constantly buzzed by helicopters operating "scenic" flights.

There's a parallel with the fishing industry, where a finite resource was in danger of depletion through over-fishing. We've opted to protect this resource via a commercial quota system that seems to work pretty well. What's the best way to protect the tourist industry's raw material - and our own precious natural heritage - before it is depleted through overuse? The industry's response to the problem is to ooze platitudes about sustainability, and demand that DOC (read, the taxpayer) develop new services and facilities on conservation land to support the projected 3.2 million overseas tourists. Clearly if we want a sustainable tourist industry, we need to get beyond the freeloading mentality of such vested interests and look for more imaginative solutions.

The answer probably lies in some form of pricing mechanism. Perhaps we could take a leaf out of the fisheries book and develop a quota-based system that puts a limit on tourist numbers in the national parks and allows a market price for access rights to emerge. Or maybe we could require foreign tourists to purchase a permit to enter a national park. Perhaps there's merit in the idea of a conservation levy charged on all tourists when they enter the country. No doubt if we had the gumption to address the underlying issues, instead of being led by the nose by a short-sighted tourist industry, many other options for debate would emerge.

Chances are that wealthy, sophisticated tourists (who the industry claims to be targeting) wouldn't mind paying for their access to our wilderness areas - particularly if they knew it meant there would still be wilderness next time they visited New Zealand. Low-value commodity tourists mightn't like it, but maybe we don't want them anyway. As every other sector in New Zealand has learned the hard way over recent decades, commodity trading just doesn't pay in the long run.

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