Tourism industry faces complex environmental challenges

Are we any closer to addressing New Zealand's sustainable tourism dilemma?

The new proposals from Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) to address environmental challenges facing New Zealand tourism, do make a valuable contribution to the discussion on the industry’s future says Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA).

The PCE’s report: Not 100% – but four steps closer to sustainable tourism does a good job of identifying some long-standing systemic issues and proposes some bold solutions that won’t be universally endorsed but deserve to be debated, observes TIA Chief Executive Chris Roberts.

In the report, the parliamentary commissioner for the environment, Simon Upton, urges the Government to take advantage of the pause in international tourism to transform the sector into one with a substantially smaller environmental footprint. Covid-19 has brought international tourism activity to a halt, threatening the livelihoods and commercial viability of many of New Zealand’s tourism-related businesses but this period also offers an opportunity to address some of the longstanding environmental and social issues associated with New Zealand’s tourism industry he suggests.

Mr Upton said: “There is broad support for the idea that protecting tourism livelihoods in the short term should not morph into a slow but inexorable return to the status quo in the long term.”

The commissioner also presents a set of four policy proposals to combat the more pressing environmental challenges faced by tourism. First is the introduction of departure tax to reflect the environmental cost of flying internationally from New Zealand, and to use the revenue to support the development of low-emissions aviation technologies and provide a source of climate finance for Pacific Island nations.

The second is to make any future central government funding for tourism infrastructure conditional on environmental criteria and aligned with mana whenua and the local community’s vision for tourism development and, where necessary, strengthen the tools the Department of Conservation can use to address the loss of wildness and natural quiet at some of Aotearoa’s most spectacular natural attractions. This would also include the third proposal which is to tighten rules around commercial activity on conservation lands and waters.

The final proposal is to improve the self-contained freedom camping certifying process and require rental car agencies to play a greater role in collecting freedom camping infringement fees and fines.

Mr Upton explains: ”These proposals are not 100 percent of the solution, but together, they just might make a difference. Tourism’s growth has been built on special attention and subsidies for decades. This has been followed by subsidies to cope with the pressures of that growth. It is time to consider measures that ask the industry and tourists to meet some of these costs and moderate demand for activities that deliver negative environmental outcomes.”

The PCE’s ideas combined with the recent report from the Tourism Futures Taskforce and the Department of Conservation’s Heritage and Visitor Strategy will contribute to a robust discussion on how we shape the future of tourism and ensure it benefits Aotearoa and New Zealanders, TIA’s Mr Roberts points out.

Two of the four recommendations in the report have picked up suggestions TIA provided in its submission to the first PCE report, Pristine, Popular… imperiled? The environmental consequences of projected tourism growth.

Mr Roberts said: “TIA has long highlighted the need for improved destination management planning. At the local level, the community voice must be heard, and we recommended that regions must have Destination Management Plans in place to be eligible for contestable government funding.

“We have also called for an overhaul of the legislation governing the public conservation estate as the framework put in place over 30 years ago is no longer meeting New Zealand’s conservation, recreation, and tourism needs.”

TIA notes that the Commissioner has a strong personal view on noise disturbing natural quiet and this is given a strong emphasis in the report.

Mr Roberts also says the Commissioner’s recommendations to strengthen the self-containment vehicle standards for responsible camping align with the position of TIA and many others.

However, the recommendation, for a Departure Tax, is likely to be controversial.

He said: “It is one way of addressing the known carbon challenge that comes with a global movement. However, we already have a heavily taxed border and it is going to be a major challenge to re-establish Aotearoa’s global connections post-COVID. Many will question whether now is the right time to be imposing a further financial barrier to travel.”

TIA looks forward to discussing the ideas raised in the PCE’s report with government and industry stakeholders.

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