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Tourism operators angry over QLDC demanding refunds

Queenstown adventure tour­­­ism operators are seething about council compliance staff posing as paying customers – then billing operators for ticket refunds.

Compliance staff at Queenstown Lakes District Council quango Lakes Environmental have adopted “mystery shopper” tactics to check operators aren’t breaking rules.

LE compliance boss Tim Francis says staff do “the whole lot” – every­thing from signature Queens­town thrillers like bungy jumping and jetboating to more sedate activities such as horse-trekking.

LE pays the ticket price but later bills the operator for a refund.

“We’ve had a couple [of companies] query it but not refuse [to pay],” Francis says. “All consent holders pay for all monitoring.”

AJ Hackett Bungy co-owner and tourism pioneer Henry van Asch says the “sneaky approach” imposes unnecessary compliance costs.

“They might book at a peak time when you’ve got peak rates because they’re trying to find out what everything’s like when you’re under pressure.

“Then we’d lose an ordinary customer and, theoretically, are paying [LE] back for whatever they’ve forked up.
“I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be refunding. They’d be talking to [his lawyer] Jim Castiglione pretty quickly.”

G-Force Paragliding co-director Thomas Rold initially had no problems with mystery shoppers but his tune changed when told that LE billed for refunds.

“So they expect us to just fly them for free in the middle of the busy season, for instance, when we’ve got paying customers ready to go?

“That sounds bloody marvellous, doesn’t it?”

Rold says he’d probably cough up but wouldn’t be happy.

Francis says safety is the main focus and given the number of recent incidents on rivers and lakes, water-based operators are getting the most scrutiny.

Among the first to get pinged under LE’s new regime – adopted at the end of last year – was Kawarau Jet, caught in a sting on May 14.

LE enforcement officer Russell Butchers booked a 2pm jetboat ride and alleges in a written report that the driver breached Kawarau Jet’s consent by going within five metres of the willowed edges of the riverbank – “at times”.
Butchers says acting as a paying customer is the “only way you can really know what it’s like”.

“It’s so we’re getting a more genuine experience rather than them knowing we’re coming and being on their best behaviour.”

Prior to the new regime, compliance officers were upfront and would go on trips free-of-charge.

Kawarau Jet director Shaun Kelly has no problem with LE’s mystery shoppers.

“They’ve always done that as far as I know. LE are there to govern the consent and we have to abide by them.”

QLDC boss Duncan Field says his council aims to monitor 20 per cent of consents annually.

“Our inspectors might be out riding a Shotover Jet boat today – they might be out inspecting landscaping in the basin tomorrow.

“It’s just part of the ongoing programme.”

Jetboater warned
Queenstown’s compliance watchdog has given an official warning to Kawarau Jet for going too close to riverbanks.

Queenstown Lakes District Council quango Lakes Environmental slapped an abatement notice on the jetboat company last week.

It tells KJ to comply immediately, requiring boats not to go within five metres of islands, willowed edges or banks except for safety reasons.

A LE timeline alleges a Kawarau Jet craft came within two metres of harbourmaster Marty Black on January 15 when he was standing on a riverbank with some scientists.

LE quizzed Kawarau Jet on February 3. A response three months later from KJ lawyers says the company reminded all drivers to “ensure compliance”.

Just 10 days later, a LE compliance officer posing as a customer alleged KJ again travelled inside the five-metre limit.

Asked about the alleged repeated breaches, KJ director Shaun Kelly says: “The guys may have [breached the limit] and we’ve rectified it so there are no issues.”