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Taking the Long View: Protecting Our Wild Places

Submitted to Scoop 23 September 2016

Taking the Long View: Protecting Our Wild Places

Gord Stewart

It was an announcement met with a mixed response.

Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, chose the Environmental Defence Society’s recent annual conference to propose a small levy of $14-$18 applied to international visitors at the border. The funds raised would be spent on conservation management and tourist and visitor facilities.

It was a fitting place to float the idea as this year’s EDS Conference Wild Places considered the connections between tourism and conservation. Discussions focused on how we can better manage the burgeoning numbers of international tourists while protecting our natural heritage.

The Green Party’s proposed Taonga Levy was supported by the Labour Party, greeted cautiously, even opposed, by the tourism industry itself, and “rubbished” (as one media report described it) by Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry.

The minister’s concern was the levy would deter visitors. EDS Chairman Gary Taylor said this argument is wrong, noting, “The recently imposed biosecurity levy had no discernible impact on visitor numbers and this one won’t either.”

The proposal would bring the total border levy to about $40. This compares to Australian and UK levies on incoming tourists of $58 and $127 (NZ equivalent) respectively and supports the EDS contention. The prime minister (also minister of tourism) is apparently open to the proposal.

The EDS conference theme was a timely one as visitor numbers are growing rapidly and tourism is an increasingly important part of the economy.

International visitor numbers are up more than 10 percent in the past year; the amount of money they spend is up 25 percent. The tourism industry now employs 7 percent of the workforce and makes up 5% of GDP. Annual visitor numbers are set to pass 4 million by 2018.

And they’re travelling here for the same reasons we Kiwis love to live here. One study looked at the top six countries our visitors come from and 10 reason why they choose New Zealand. Prominent on the list are beaches and coasts, marine reserves, lakes and rivers, mountains/alpine, and native forests.

With all this interest and the pressure it puts on our natural and wild places, the Green Party levy makes eminent sense. Estimated income is about $60 million a year, with 70 percent to go towards the Government’s recently announced goal of a predator free New Zealand by 2050. The remaining 30 percent would go into the Regional Mid-sized Tourism Facilities Grant Fund.

This income stream would be a good thing as the Government’s much heralded long-term, predator-free ambition came with only a $7 million a year, four-year commitment. The tourism facilities fund is a paltry $12 million over four years – enough for some toilets and a car park or two. On this, one conference delegate observed that any promise or plan without sufficient investment is only a pipe dream.

Another obvious source of funds for predator-free efforts and other crucial biodiversity conservation initiatives is GST earnings from visitors, about $1 billion a year and counting. Why not invest most (or all?) of it back into conservation and the environment rather than sweep it off into general revenue in search of a surplus?

The conference also saw a commitment from Labour leader Andrew Little to restore the Department of Conservation’s statutory advocacy function. DOC has its hands full with land management, given its $368 million funding reduction in real terms since National took office. Adequate funding is needed for this and for its important role offering expert advice and advocacy on policy, regulations and legislation relating to wildlife and ecosystems.

Another very positive moment at the conference was the announcement by Minister for the Environment Nick Smith that he is establishing a collaborative group to develop a National Policy Statement on Biodiversity.

This will tidy up a situation which now sees seventy-eight councils around the country take different approaches to managing biodiversity in their jurisdictions, with no guidance and no monitoring. Federated Farmers and Royal Forest and Bird – usually adversaries – had to agree the terms of reference and the group is well resourced for an initial 18 months.

“The conference fully understands the challenges we face to restore our biodiversity and protect our landscapes,” said Gary Taylor in summing up. “But there is a real sense of optimism that if we work together we can get there.”

Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.

© Scoop Media

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