The prime minister has signalled Queenstown’s council will get government money to help deal with freedom campers.
A tourism influx this summer has left free camping sites overflowing, making it an issue up and down the country. In Queenstown, specifically, empty sections near the CBD have been pounced on by budget travellers who are happy to sleep in cars or vans.
Yesterday, the Otago Daily Times reported a Gibbston resident describing a riverside camping site near his home as being like a “Syrian refugee camp”.
Speaking on TV3’s The Nation yesterday, Prime Minister John Key says the government needs to consider if councils need support to deal with freedom camping.
What kind of support?
Key: “Well, it’s money isn’t it, ultimately.”
He adds: “The councils would argue they don’t have enough money. The question is whether we need to help them, I think there’s an argument that we do.”
Likely beneficiaries are small places with large influxes of tourists, Key says – like Queenstown and the South Island’s West Coast.
Gibbston camping area ‘overcrowded’
As reported yesterday, up to 200 people a night are cramming into a car park next to Gibbston’s Rum Curries camping area, which has one long-drop toilet, at the end of Rafters Rd, next to the Kawarau River.
The Department of Conservation manages the site and staff admit it is overcrowded and campers are defecating outside and leaving rubbish.
Operations manager Geoff Owen intends to raise the issue with police.
Building contractor Brandon O’Callaghan has lived across the highway from Rafters Rd for 11 years.
He says during the past six months it had been “like living in a camping ground”, with the number of people staying at the car park.
Tourists recently knocked on his door asking to camp in his backyard because the site was full and he had heard campers were defecating in the river because the toilet was overflowing.
“It is ridiculous,” O’Callaghan says.
“It used to be one or two kayakers; that would be it. But in the last couple of months it’s gone up tenfold.
“It’s not just summer. It wasn’t just over Christmas. It’s every night.
“And now it’s out of control. In the last few months it’s just gone ballistic. How many more are going to come?”
Dave Henderson and wife Kristina Buxton live over the fence from the site.
“Parts of that property can not now be walked on because they are so covered in human shit,” Henderson says.
“There are no rubbish bins down there so litter blows all over our property.”
Henderson has some empathy for the campers, “having been 21 once”.
“Communities like Queenstown, which will just become more popular, at all levels of tourism, need to be creative and realistic about solving this issue.”
Landowners in many parts of the country have raised concerns about noise, sanitation and waste over freedom camping.
Endless stream of traffic
Last week, the Otago Daily Times reported up to 30 people, primarily sleeping in cars, had taken over privately-owned land in Park St, Queenstown.
O’Callaghan says that’s nothing compared with the Gibbston site, with its “endless” stream of traffic, bass-driven music cranking, and rubbish and toilet paper strewn everywhere.
“It’s like a camping ground on New Year’s Eve every night and on a Saturday night it just goes nuts.”
DoC local boss Owen admits the site is overcrowded and campers are defecating on the site and leaving rubbish.
He met Queenstown council staff last week to discuss how to tackle the problem – and intends raising the issue with police.
“People see it as a place to camp free and it was never designed to do that,” Owen says.
“It was never designed to take the number of vehicles that have been experienced down there.
“It does pose an issue for my staff because we’re having to clean up after them and, to me, that’s not satisfactory.”
The council is responsible for the road and DoC manages areas either side – the Rum Curries historic reserve and a “marginal strip” of land between the river and the road.
Owen says the problems were apparent last summer but have been worse this summer.
He is investigating whether overnight campers can be banned from the reserve by a change of designation and he hopes a solution can be found by next summer.
No patrols, no fines
Council regulatory manager Lee Webster says the council’s enforcement team has only recently become aware of the scale of camping at Rafters Rd and is working with Doc to get a consistent approach for the whole area.
To date, the council has not extended its nightly freedom camping patrols to the area and has not issued any fines there.
As awareness of freedom camping grows across the district, the community’s tolerance of non-compliance is less and the council is getting more reports of people sleeping in uncertified campervans and other vehicles, Webster says.
If the council is to meet a community demand for more enforcement, it will have to allocate more resources to it, which is something people can ask for through the annual plan and budget consultation in April.
In 2011, the government brought in the Freedom Camping Act ahead of the Rugby World Cup to give local councils the powers to prohibit camping and issue $200 instant fines.
The country is now dealing with greater numbers of tourists.
The latest Statistics New Zealand tally of international visitor arrivals, for the year to January, was almost 3.2 million, up 10.7 per cent on the previous 12-month period.
Last week, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment estimated 60,000 international visitors a year go freedom camping in New Zealand.
Otago Daily Times