Department of Conservation refusing to cut tourism operator fees

The Department of Conservation (DoC) is refusing to discount fees it charges to tourism operators despite pleas for a reduction amid COVID-19 pressure.

The Government on Wednesday paid $1.5 million to Whale Watch in Kaikōura as it tries to prop up the struggling tourism sector, but the DoC is not playing ball, refusing to give discounts to users of its land.

"We still keep getting full fees coming in from DoC," said Charlie Hobbs, who operates glacier tours at Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. "They demand that they need to be paid but we have zero income for the activities."

Hobbs and his wife Mary also run a café and they're charged management fees, monitoring fees, activity fees and a fee to lease the land. 

When they asked for a discount, DoC replied, "We are unable to agree to your request for additional financial assistance," and pointed out that it had given them an extra month to pay their bills.

"We're asking for a reduction or a waiver of fees," Hobbs told Newshub. "We weren't asking for any money - we were just wanting some sort of reduction."

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis said it's something the Government is looking into.

"It's a conversation myself and the Minister of Conservation [Eugenie Sage] have been having and officials have been having. It's something we're looking at."

National's Tourism spokesperson Todd McClay said it shows the Government is "out of touch".

"We've got thousands of tourism businesses in New Zealand doing it tough and actually none of them are making any money on the DoC estate at the moment."

The DoC has been advised they must send invoices under the law, the Public Finance Act, and the minister's office told Newshub if tourism operators are struggling to pay they should get in touch with DoC to see what arrangements could be made. 

The ministers were "actively working on the issue".

Whale Watch in Kaikōura was hit hard twice in five years: first it was closed because of the devastating 2016 earthquake, and now it's recovering from the COVID-19 lockdown.

"One hundred and three days since lockdown until we launch our first commercial whale watching tour," Kauahi Ngapora of Whale Watch Kaikōura said. "If we go back and compare that to the earthquake that was 49 days."

The Whale Watch boats are due back out on July 4 and Ngapora is delighted by the funding from the Government.

"The support really allows us to support our people."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said roughly 180,000 people visit Kaikōura, describing the Whale Watch tours as "critical tourism infrastructure".

"By supporting particular strategic assets within our tourism industry that then actually reinforces the ability for other operators to keep going as well."

But it's a different story for Hobbs who needs help now.

"Just because we're small doesn't mean we're not iconic."

The Prime Minister said the Government is prepared to help the tourism sector get up and running again to support Kiwis make the most of domestic tourism.

"New Zealanders are starting to get out and see their own backyard and we need to support the sector and the industry to do that."

But it appears one of her own Government departments is doing just the opposite.