Esther Whitehead: Camping by design, not piecemeal regulations

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We collectively design the future we want, through the decisions we make today. Nationally, we have inadvertently designed the tourism trends, types and tours that we now see in New Zealand, perhaps through a misguided belief that the clean green will always remain regardless of the pressures we invite.

A Mountain Scene article from 2011 reads: “QLDC community services boss Paul Wilson says: “I have gone back to look at the records in 2009 and there were up to 24 vans camping every night at the One Mile.” Wilson used to push on freedom campers himself … in the 1990s. “If a councillor was to try that today, they’d never get to work,” he fumes.”

That article makes reference to 20 years ago and nearly a decade on from that headline, “Fury at Freedom Camping”, we’re still horrified with the same problem.

If we want to see real change we need to stop fighting the problem with localised bans, which serve only to move the problem to a different site, and work with or lobby our government to change the 2011 Freedom Camping Act created by Sir John Key (who Queenstowners voted in).

The elephant in the reserve is the NZ Motor Caravan Association, which has interpreted the act as an entitlement for its members. While issues with self-contained versus non self-contained are apparent, it’s not as clear-cut as good camper versus evil camper. There are environmental impacts with our traditional ways of using reserves and we can’t have one rule for ‘us’ and another for ‘them’, can we?

Councils wanted a tool to control freedom camping and the 2011 Act gave them the ability to fine, but reversed the council’s position of ‘allowed where permitted’ to ‘allowed except where prohibited’.

The holiday park industry has invested in the higher-yield tourist, directing them to attractions and activities that encourage longer, higher yielding stays. Yet in 2011 we made it acceptable to bypass this fantastic resource. The number of camp sites a region provides is not decided by accident, and our region’s camp sites have decreased in the same period as rapid growth in the lower-yield tourist, leaving fewer options with ablution blocks/bins.

As the host community we cannot wave a wand and make the problem instantly disappear but we can provide tools to lead campers to think differently. We can also provide infrastructure to prevent environmental degradation. Many suggestions on levies/taxes could fund this investment.

If we’re looking scientifically at impact alone, then we need to take a good look at many of our practices as the host, how we use natural resources, how we generate waste streams, how we care for our water, and how we act as stewards. We often focus on making hay while the sun shines, but is this at the expense of longer-term investment? It is we who’ve turned tourism into a commodity and it’s up to us to manage its development. This is our call to action.

Esther Whitehead is co-founder of Sustainable Queenstown