Trampers from overseas will soon have to pay substantially more to access huts and campsites on New Zealand's so-called Great Walks as part of a shake-up of the management of the DOC estate.
Conservation Minister Maggie Barry told a meeting at the National Party annual conference on Saturday that part of the $76 million in Budget funding for the Department of Conservation would be spent on a new computer system to enable "differential pricing", allowing DOC to charge international tourists more than New Zealanders when they booked walks on tracks such as the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler.
Referring to recent calls for a levy on arriving international visitors, Barry said: "We won't be putting a border tax on, that's not how we roll.
"But what we are doing with that new computer system, which is part of that $76m, we are investing into a modern, fit-for-purpose DOC computer system to take bookings.
"We will be doing differential charging so visitors who actually use our estates (as opposed to visitors who just come to New Zealand who don't actually go out into the DOC estate) but visitors who actually go on our walks will be paying more – substantially more - to access the huts than New Zealanders.
"We pay our way through our taxes and rates and so forth. International visitors will be paying a larger amount."
$11.4m of the Budget funding is earmarked for the upgrade of the booking system and other DOC online services.
'People have been rorting us'
Last month DOC put up the fees for everyone who wanted to tramp the Great Walks, saying the rises, although modest, would increase revenue from the walks by about $880,000 a year "without significantly reducing demand or participation."
The largest increase was a 30 percent hike in the cost of a night in a hut on the Milford Track, up from $54 to $76. By comparison, it said, trampers on the Three Capes Track in Tasmania pay around $180 a night.
"There is no doubt about it, people have been rorting us a bit," Barry said.
"Private campsite providers have not been able to open as no-one was able to undercut DOC, we were just too cheap for words."
She told the meeting that the recent price hikes had no impact on demand.
"Interesting this whole business of putting up the rates. On the Milford Track we put them up by 30 percent - there wasn't a murmur. The Milford Track sold out within 24 hours, the entire summer season."
DOC is currently working out the amounts that international visitors will be charged, and Barry said it was hoping to set the charges for the most popular tracks high enough to drive demand to lesser walked routes.
"We will drive visitor numbers to the walks and the parks that are less walked and we want to do that deliberately," she said.
More walks in the works
$12.7m of DOC's Budget funding will be spent on expanding the Great Walks network, with two new tracks being developed.
A further $5.7m will be spent on new, shorter walks (to be called Great Short Walks and Big Day Walks).
"We are developing two-hour walks and half-day walks because that's what people want," Barry said.
"We are targeting a 10 percent average annual growth in visitors to the Great Short Walks and 11.5 percent in average growth to the Big Day Walks."
The DOC estates had 1.6m visitors last year, and Barry said this "brings about $13.5 billion to New Zealand." Around 50 percent of all international tourists visit a national park while in New Zealand.
"We need to attract visitors but we need to be very sure that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg," she said.
Some conservation and environment groups were critical that the Budget funding was earmarked only for tourism infrastructure, but Barry said the extra revenue raised would be spent on conservation measures.
"It is the biggest payday, pay year, DOC has had. It is a wonderful thing and for those people who knocked it and said it wasn't spending money on biodiversity they need to pay attention to the fact that we have had issues trying to manage the large number of visitors that love to come to our walks and national parks and we needed to relieve the impact on the environment and put in practicalities," she said.
"But the money that we make from that extra visitation will be ploughed back into biodiversity, it will be ploughed back into predator control."