Monday, 22 March 2021

User fees and park access

I attended Otago University's tourism policy conference held in Queenstown last week, giving a brief keynote opening to a panel session on covering the costs. 

New Zealand's policy has generally been to charge a price of zero for access to congestible resources, then to get really mad about tourists overwhelming those places. Charging access fees, where possible, makes rather more sense. 

I wrote it up for the Stuff papers; it was in this morning's Dom Post and is online as well. A snippet:

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.

I expected brickbats; I've received a few when previously recommending charging fees for this stuff.

Instead I received a friendly note by email in response to the column, reproduced with permission:

I read with interest your article on paying for access to tourist sites and I'm grateful you felt moved to take the time to put that together.

In November 2020 my wife and I with another couple cycled the Otago rail trail, and it never occurred to us that there wouldn't be a fee for using this tourist attraction. So at the end of the trail and in amongst the normal chit-chat we asked trip organisers how much of the fees was for access to the trail itself - '...nothing it's free....'

We were in disbelief that there was no charge for using this resource, but then of course we thought back to the degraded track, parts of which are dangerous because of lack of or poor maintenance, and we could see that actually there is no money being reinvested, and I guess some local farmers do a little bit of work to keep it rideable. 

It is a complete nonsense that people can use this and not pay any money to be put towards maintenance and development of the attraction. On our last night and Clyde we happened to run into the area manager, for I think Fulton Hogan, and spoke with him in the bar about this issue. He said that civil engineering companies periodically spoke to DOC about a maintenance contract - which would be relatively easy, but there was simply no meaningful response from these people. 

So we are left with the hopeless situation of this government department being unable to even set up a contract to have a contractor drag a couple of angled brooms behind a quad bike along the track once or twice a week. 

Anyway thank you for taking the time to put something into the media, and I hope something comes of it. If we can't organise some fee and ticket system utilising the be digital world we seem to live in, then we may as well pack up and close it down. 

I hope Minister Nash makes progress on this one.

I always learn interesting things at these sorts of industry events. 

I don't think that I've ever been to one that more closely fitted Adam Smith's warning: 
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

I heard calls for reductions in the number of cruise operators in Milford, not to address environmental consequences but to reduce capacity and increase prices from $100 per ticket to $200. I heard calls for DoC concession licences to include piles of provisions around living wages and net carbon zero measures [even in sectors fully covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme!] that seemed well designed to raise rivals' costs. 

Only one of the sessions was like that, but it was a bit jaw-dropping. 

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