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Where will the money come from for Labour's warm, fuzzy policy?

Where will the money come from for Labour's warm, fuzzy policy?

There’s been some political debate over Labour’s announcement this month that, among other things, it wants to upgrade huts and tracks. There’s the question of which government got rid of tramping huts in the first place, and some questions over quantifying this blanket statement of the importance of outdoors infrastructure and nailing down some specifics.

But where is the money going to come from, when the Department of Conservation is already stretched for resources and the current government isn’t keen to dip its hand into the cookie jar to hand out more? Moreover, the country isn’t in a position to shell out, especially in the face of a dominant political ideology that paints conservation as a want, not a need.

Labour’s aims are admirable but some of the tropes around conservation are incongruent.

Labour cautions that taking care of outdoors infrastructure doesn’t necessarily mean pouring resources into frontline country facilities – such as huts on Great Walks, the country’s popular and touristy tracks, like the Milford and the Routeburn. But that’s really where the money is coming from – out of the pockets of tourists who come to Aotearoa for these semi-managed, mountains-with-handrails experiences (see economic impact details, at bottom).

DOC manages $400 million worth of outdoor infrastructure. Last year it spent $2.67 million on new huts opened around the country. Out of seven new or replacement huts, two were in the South Island, two were in the lower North Island, one was at Ruapehu, one in the Coromandel and one on Great Barrier. 

Bear in mind that some 32 percent of the population lives in Auckland and one in every two New Zealanders lives within a few hours’ drive of Queen Street. Arguably only two of those huts are truly accessible as a weekend trip for the majority of the population. If you’re going to charge for huts – which seems to be the way DOC is going – why not build a few more of them where they’ll get the most (domestic) traffic?

Moreover, why not skim a little cream off the tourist dollar for the sake of huts and tracks while we’re at it? Anyone who’s ever been tramping will have played Spot the European on the track (one point for spotting the European, two if you can correctly guess the nationality without hearing them speak). Over the past few years there’s been an increasing number of young travellers doing a post-military service New Zealand tour on the cheap. Sometimes that constitutes not paying hut fees at all, while New Zealanders continue to fund them through the taxpayer dollar.

One answer? How about a conservation tax for all visitors to New Zealand? A simple, $5 fee added onto the cost of travel in the same way departure tax is. With around 2.4 million international tourists every year, that’s in excess of $12 million to spend on huts and tracks, or killing possums, if that's your thing.

Even if you’re a hardcore Lol-Nat, it’s time to suck it up and get serious about conservation. New Zealand’s conservation estate makes up a third of our land area. It’s owned by us – you and me – and managed by DOC. A greater sense of ownership of the conservation estate among New Zealanders wouldn’t hurt.

*A 2006 DOC economic impact study looked at a number of case studies of conservation areas around the country. Fiordland, for example, received $8.8 million in DOC spending in 2005. The result was 1,600 jobs, $196 million output and $78 million value-added income. Eighty percent of visitors to Fiordland National Park are from abroad, 12 percent of whom wouldn’t have even bothered coming to New Zealand, were it not for the national park.

Abel Tasman National Park gets $1.2 million a year from DOC, with $45 million output a year. Our West Coast conservation land got $13 million from DOC in 2003 and had an output of $221 million, with 1,814 jobs.