David Kennedy: Creating a social licence to defecate

Vexed issue: Freedom camping in Gibbston last year PICTURE: OTAGO DAILY TIMES

OPINION: It’s been interesting watching the ongoing debate over freedom camping ebb and flow over the last few months.

After a busy tourism season in 2016, the government tried to get ahead of the curve by announcing a $12 million infrastructure fund that many called inadequate.

Federated Farmers likened the fund to “putting a tea towel on a bonfire”.

Christchurch’s council waded in prior to this summer, banning all camping within its borders that wasn’t in self-contained vehicles.

A recent newspaper article pitched the economic benefit of the 60,000 people who visit our shores annually with an aversion to motels, hotels and campgrounds, and a penchant for soiling our once pristine wilderness.

Apparently these tourists spend $4800 per trip, which is almost double the spend of an average tourist, which comes in at a measly $2500.

We all know statistics shouldn’t be taken in isolation and need context, but we can’t deny that almost $300 million is a lot of folding stuff and delivers more than $40m in GST for the government coffers.

The core of the problem is not about revenue, it’s about communities – or the new buzz-phrase is “social licence to operate”.

That’s a fancy way of saying that the locals don’t mind you being there.

The Business Ministry states in its tourism strategy that one of the characteristics of a successful industry is that it’s highly valued by New Zealanders.

You do have to wonder whether freedom campers are helping that goal.

It’s a vexed issue and one that’s not easy to solve.

The two ends of the spectrum are quite extreme.

We could label these visitors as tourism pariahs, banishing them and their underpowered vans from our highways and laybys, although this does seem a bit like a Kiwi version of “sending them back to Mexico”.

Or we could build 300 state-of-the art, solar-powered, self-cleaning toilet and shower blocks and strategically dot them around the country, which, while it could position NZ as the “ablution capital of the world”, seems excessive over-catering for people regarded as freeloaders.

Probably what we’ll do is form a working group, print a brochure and cross our fingers.

It is a major issue that we need to front up to at a national level because, like Richie McCaw’s Fonterra cows, it sits right at the heart of the 100% Pure New Zealand international brand promise.

David Kennedy is Ngai Tahu Tourism’s southern regional boss