We have always prided ourselves that New Zealand is the land of the great outdoors. Our grand mountains, pristine forests, rivers and fresh waterways confirm that. So too does the comparative space our small population allows each one of us to enjoy. And the sea is never more than a hundred or so kilometres away, meaning we literally can have the best of all worlds.
Over 600,000 of us actively tramp, hunt, climb, or mountain bike and almost as many more of us fish, sail or swim each year. Similar numbers of overseas visitors make their way here to enjoy the great outdoor lifestyle we have to offer. Clean, green, active New Zealand has become one of the most overworked phrases in our national vocabulary.
But we are now beginning to realise all is not well in our state of paradise. Numbers of endangered species, marine life particularly, are increasing and populations dwindling as the harvest of the sea’s bounty increases. The prospect of dairy production’s “white gold” has led to farming intensification and irrigation that is starting to bleed major rivers dry, with consequent threats to flora, fauna and land mass. And the sheer delight we all feel at being able to access our great outdoors is placing major pressure on the infrastructure of our national parks and public spaces. Our pristine tourist posters are beginning to look more like a faded reminder of a bygone, simpler era.
The pressure for better health, education and social services has left little room to expand the conservation budget. While that has led to remarkably innovative funding partnerships between the private sector and the Department of Conservation to make up the shortfall, and while these have increased the level of public awareness and specific commitment to projects to save and enhance threatened species, it is still not enough. This is absolutely no criticism of the dedicated conservators and scientists who have done so much over the years, but we cannot go on the way we are.
At the same time, the pressures on other areas will continue and governments will face the perennial balancing act of how much to allocate to competing interests who will always have a justifiable case for saying they are not getting enough. Our small tax base, a product of our comparatively flat income structure and the absence of a significant wealthy middle class, limit any government’s capacity to substantially increase the revenue base.
Yet, there is a way through this conundrum – at little cost to New Zealanders, but with significant benefit to the environment. A levy of $20 to $25 charged on every overseas tourist entering the country would raise between $60 and $75 million a year. That revenue could be designated for use in improving the infrastructure of the conservation estate – upgrading tracks and huts in national parks, and providing more toilets to stop freedom campers polluting our highways and byways. In turn, that additional revenue would free up an equivalent amount in the Department of Conservation’s existing budget which could be redirected towards the protection of vulnerable species, enhanced predator control and the like. Together, these measures would provide for a small but determined start in redressing the imbalance and heading us back towards a time when we could talk about clean, green New Zealand with justifiable pride once more.
The one-off imposition on the tourist would be minimal – equivalent to the cost to an overseas visitor of going to one stately home run by Britain’s National Trust – so would be hardly be a disincentive to visitors coming here. Indeed, many of them are stunned already that there is no charge on their access to our public estate, so would be unlikely to object to a modest levy of this type, tagged for the preservation, maintenance and upgrading of the natural surroundings they have travelled so far to enjoy.
To date, the government is lukewarm on the idea for reasons which are unclear (although the former Prime Minister seemed to think such a step was inevitable.) He for one seemed to appreciate it would be an easy and popular step to concede to a support party in post-election negotiations. It is not difficult to imagine his successors coming in time to the same view, if it means staying in office.