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Tourism operators support user pays for foreign visitors to national parks

Tess Brunton, Otago/Southland reporter

Tourism operators say there is an appetite for international visitors to pay to access the country's national parks to help cover costs.

The Department of Conservation is facing major financial headwinds and said it could not afford to maintain its assets which were under increasing pressure from visitor congestion.

Officials have told Conservation Minister Tama Potaka he should consider more user charges and raising existing fees - which he has not ruled out.

Potaka said the Department of Conservation had a lot of responsibilities and not enough money to cover them.

"It receives about 0.44 - under 0.5 of a percent of all government funding to look after 30 percent of the whenua in this country. It's not an easy job, but they do their very best," he said.

User pays was not new and was already in place for huts and Great Walks, he said.

"The notion of user pays or maybe charging for some things is absolutely necessary to look at, to consider and then we'll come back with options and obviously work with other Ministers across Cabinet to make a decision on behalf of government."

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Glenorchy Air managing director James Stokes said a user pays model for national parks could work, but the government needed to get the balance right.

"It has the merit but it can't just be perceived as a money grab," Stokes said.

He has been involved in the Milford Opportunities Project, which is developing a masterplan for the much-favoured destination.

It includes a proposal to charge international visitors an access fee to fund local conservation, community initiatives and visitor infrastructure.

"Some of the figures they've suggested would put a significant percentage on a family's trip to Milford Sound and you risk pricing yourself out of a competitive market quite quickly with something like a $100, $200 fee that was initially being discussed," he said.

The Milford Opportunities business case is expected to go to Cabinet late next month.

In Rotorua, River Rats Raft and Kayak owner Justin Hutton said New Zealand's environment was a major drawcard and people were willing to pay to experience it.

"I think that if people are paying the amount of money that it costs to get here from the other side of the world, I don't think there's going to be much resistance perhaps as some people would be making out to a charge," Hutton said.

"I do agree that there should be some element of user pays."

Taxes should cover some of DOC's costs, but it made sense to look at alternatives, he said.

"In terms of track and hut infrastructure, that is something where I think that an element of user pays is probably not a bad thing, and I do see that there is probably an option there for possibly differential pricing in the same way."

Visit Ruapehu general manager Jo Kennedy said raising the international visitor levy or charging Australians the levy were other options, but a user pay system also had merits.

"People want to give back but there's nowhere to give back. They walk through this incredible landscape and they finish it and they're buzzing and they expect to pay, so I would say never say never," she said.

Zealandia Te Māra a Tanē chief executive Danielle Shanahan told a recent conference that she quite happily paid to go to national parks in the United States on a recent trip.

"These models work. People are travelling long distances to get to these places. Our dollar is not overly strong. I think there is a significant opportunity to be supporting visitors to support our local conservation and that's how we frame it," Shanahan said.

"This is about that visitation supporting what happens locally."

Potaka said he saw his role as ensuring DOC was given ministerial support, guidance and leadership to ensure that it focused on high conservation areas and high conservation values.

The department was undertaking a financial sustainability review and would get back to him with findings and recommendations, he said.

There is no set end date to the review yet.

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