New departure tax among recommendations from Environment Commissioner to deal with cost of tourism

The attractiveness of New Zealand's 100% Pure image to the rest of the world has resulted in the country falling well short of maintaining a 100 percent pure environment, according to a report released on Thursday by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton.

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commissioner released a report into the environmental cost of tourism growth in Aotearoa.

The new 2021 report recommends ways to reduce damage to our environment in the future, when tourism numbers begin to increase.

Issues identified in it include greenhouse gas emissions from tourists flying to and from New Zealand, a loss of "wildness and natural quiet" in popular parts of our national parks, and increasing pressure on wastewater networks and solid waste infrastructure in our towns and cities.

It may seem an odd time to recommend ways to deal with tourism growth given border closures due to COVID-19, with no short to mid-term likelihood of that changing. But Associate Professor Christian Schott from the Tourism Management Group at Victoria University of Wellington says the pandemic has created a clean break in inbound travel that has provided an enormous opportunity to reset the industry.

"The timing of this report is very appropriate as the current pandemic-imposed period of less-than-usual and domestically-driven tourism gives us time to reflect, reimagine and (hopefully) redesign tourism to, and in Aotearoa/New Zealand," Dr Schott said.

"We must not miss this opportunity, which has been accompanied by much hardship and suffering here and around the world, and that we must have a robust discussion about 'what Kiwis want from tourism' over the short and long term, and whether what we had prior to COVID-19 aligns with this."

The Commissioner's report says New Zealand should use this time to transition to a form of tourism that is less environmentally harmful - and more resilient - than how the industry has been operating, and has put forward four key recommendations.

Travel tax

The report recommends the introduction of a departure tax that "reflects the environmental cost of flying internationally from New Zealand". It says this revenue should be used to support the development of low-emission aviation technology and provide financial assistance to Pacific Island nations being damaged by tourism and climate change.

A new report says COVID-19 is the perfect chance to reset the tourism industry.
A new report says COVID-19 is the perfect chance to reset the tourism industry. Photo credit: Newshub/NZ Government

The Commissioner didn't recommend what cost the tax should be set at, but noted that the UK has a departure tax set at the equivalent of NZ$25 for short-haul trips and NZ$155 for long-haul trips. 

Make funding conditional

The report recommends any future central Government funding for tourism infrastructure should be made conditional on environmental criteria and aligned with mana whenua and the local community's vision for tourism development.

Strengthen DOC

The report recommends the Government should strengthen the tools the Department of Conservation can use to address the "loss of wildness and natural quiet" at some of Aotearoa's most spectacular natural attractions, including tightening up rules around commercial activity on conservation land and water.

Not-so-free freedom campers

The report recommends the Government needs to strengthen the existing standard for self-contained freedom camping sites, improve oversight of the certifying process and require rental car agencies to play a greater role in collecting freedom camping infringement fees and fines.

The Commissioner acknowledged that introducing a new tax to tourists in a post-COVID-19 could be risky, but insisted any departure tax would be a tiny percentage of the cost of most trips. It added that it wouldn't be a barrier to those attracted to Aotearoa in the first place and in fact it could add to its appeal.

"Research conducted for this report indicates that New Zealand is something of a must-visit destination for many people, with demand not being overly sensitive to an increase in airfares. A climate-related tax could also enhance New Zealand's reputation if we are seen as more sustainable than competing destinations," the report says.  

Dr Richard Aquino from the School of Hospitality & Tourism at Auckland University of Technology says the Commissioner's views on a new tax are "optimistic."

"Together with introducing fees to access conservation areas, this policy is directed towards supporting high-value tourism. However, the report's definition of high-value tourism could have been made clearer," said Dr Aquino.

"The report is optimistic that a proposed departure tax will be well received by international tourists." 

Kiwis departing New Zealand would also have to pay the tax and the Commissioner believes New Zealand shouldn't be afraid to debate tourist limits or charges, because rejecting any limits on numbers will simply see environmental problems worsen.

The Commissioner said these proposals are not 100 percent of the solution, "but together, they just might make a difference".

"Tourists - and the tourism businesses that serve them - should be required to pay for the cost of the environmental services they use," the Commissioner said, adding that the wishes of the community and mana whenua must be respected when decisions are made about tourism developments.

"It is time to consider measures that ask the industry and tourists to meet some of these costs and moderate demand for activities that deliver negative environmental outcomes."

The report points out that every time a tourist flies to, from or around New Zealand, they add to the stock of greenhouse gases that are driving climatic disruption.

"If we act now, we have the chance to transition the industry to one that is less environmentally harmful - as well as more resilient - than its predecessor," it says.