Some New Zealanders want tighter regulations on freedom camping, while others point to the benefits backpackers bring after the Minister of Tourism touted a ban on tourists hiring vans without toilets.
Stuart Nash also wants greater focus placed on attracting rich holidaymakers when the borders open up, and would be quite happy to see fewer cash-strapped backpackers.
That split opinion among listeners, but not in the town of Richmond, just out of Nelson.
“Everyone – we’re totally over it. We see people in the vans or station wagons with a self-contained sticker, they’ll be up at local parks and playgrounds – it’s just awful. Of course you wonder where they go to the toilet,” Sue Lindsay of Richmond said.
“You know it’s a very difficult situation, because you want to be hospitable and welcoming, but you don’t want your park trashed. Quite often we’re picking up rubbish after these people,” Lindsay said.
“It’s only a small proportion that do but it just spoils it for everyone.”
Vivien Daley agreed. She has travelled a lot of New Zealand and has regularly seen tourists not paying at campsite honesty boxes and using amenities for free.
She said we were being ripped off, and wanted tourists to pay more at the door.
“People see us as a cheap place to come to where they can spend quite a lot of time, and not spend much money. While I understand people wanting to do that, I think we’re undervaluing what we have got to offer here… and we’re letting it go for nothing,” Daley said.
The country last year lifted the cost of coming here – a $35 International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy. The pre-Covid estimation of it generating $90 million a year was meant to be split 50-50 between conservation and tourism infrastructure.
An ex-pat American, Larry, now in Tauranga, said he started as a backpacker, ended up staying, and for the last 50 years has been a New Zealander.
“I have a lot to do with backpackers here in the summertime, and they’re genuine people. They’re like me – they were curious about New Zealand… most people I find here want to stay longer, and they’ll probably come back,” Larry said.
Natalia Yates, who used to live on the West Coast, said she had good interactions with every single backpacker, including some who stayed at her house.
She said her small Dunedin business, The Felt Princess Wool Shop, was often visited by backpackers rather than luxury travellers who went to the big attractions.
“Those high-end customers are really good for the high-end range of tourism. But there’s all of these other little companies around the country that get the backpackers that stop in at places like my shop,” Yates said.
The head of the tourism industry body, Chris Roberts, said backpackers were also important because they filled critical roles in tourism, hospitality and horticulture.
“So they do come here for a long time, they work, they spend the money they earn working. They go away from New Zealand being ambassadors for our country, raving about their time here, encouraging other people to come, and likely to come back themselves as adults and then be those high-paying, high-value tourists that we want.”
Roberts said they had been looking at issues posed by freedom camping for years and there was no simple solution. Banning vans with no toilets, as Minister Nash proposed, was not one of them.
“Look I think the minister is demonstrating a passion for his new portfolio and that he really wants to get in there and make a difference. That’s great from our point of view. We’ll look to give him some more information,” Roberts said.
“We’re all wanting to solve the problems that have been around and make sure we have a fantastic industry in New Zealand, and I think we can achieve a lot with the minister.”
Roberts said one way to help: make non-self contained vehicles park overnight at campgrounds or Department of Conservation sites which have toilet facilities.