As the number of visitors on New Zealand’s Great Walks continues to climb, the government is considering “differential” fees for international and domestic visitors as a way of funding back-country infrastructure used by trampers.
Acting Conservation Minister Nicky Wagner said conservation officials were working with the tourism industry and others to explore funding options.
She said legislation precluded the Department of Conservation (DOC) from charging for access to national parks or tracks, but it did allow for charges for huts, camping and car parking facilities.
Climbing and tramping groups this week said tourist numbers were at a “tipping point” and risked spoiling people’s experience of the outdoors.
The groups said many New Zealanders were choosing to avoid the nine Great Walks and were becoming increasingly upset at the number of people on secondary trails.
Almost 120,000 people visited the Great Walks in the 2015/2016 season – an increase of 12.4 percent over the previous year.
Sixty percent of those were international visitors and on some tracks, such as the Kepler and Routeburn, New Zealanders made up only about 25 percent of walkers.
Auckland woman Monique Elven said if the government was willing to promote New Zealand’s wilderness to overseas visitors, it needed to spend more to protect the experience.
Ms Elven is a regular tramper of New Zealand back-country tracks. She recently returned from hiking the St James Trail in north Canterbury and said many of the huts were over-crowded.
“It’s really good we encourage young people to use these things – when I was that age I did the same, but it’s important we teach young people to care for our environment. There needs to be checks and balances,” she said.
Ms Elven suggested that the hut booking system used by DOC in some parts of the country could be extended to back-country huts, especially on the Te Araroa Trail, which would limit numbers and allow better management. She said the department needed better support for this to happen.
She also said the cost of accommodation needed to increase for visitors, and more rangers needed to be present in the huts.
“When these young overseas students buy their hut passes, a booklet on hut etiquette would not go amiss either,” Ms Elven said.
It was evident that some tracks needed better upkeep, Ms Elven said, but she understood resources were limited.
“Money is limited and it doesn’t seem fair on DOC, yet we’re encouraging people to come and use these facilities.
“We should be encouraging overseas people to enjoy our outdoor environment, but we also have a responsibility to New Zealanders wanting to enjoy their facilities and outdoors.”
Ms Wagner said an increased profile brought challenges for New Zealand, including the cost of servicing remote huts and keeping the experience up to standard.
“More and more people are coming to New Zealand to experience our natural world, and the Great Walks are among the most popular attractions on the DOC estate.”
The minister said there were lots of discussions happening with the tourism sector and DOC, at political and operational levels.
“No decisions have been made yet, but a number of options are being considered and are being carefully evaluated, such as differential fees for international and domestic visitors.”
Developments could be announced in the first half of this year.