If tourism levy the solution, what’s the problem?

The Government has announced its intention to implement an International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy in 2019. Public engagement has been initiated, as usual, quite late in the decision-making process, once a preferred policy instrument has been identified by officials. But if the levy is the solution, what problems is it trying to address?

It is important to understand that there are three related – but in many ways still very different – policy challenges and associated funding needs that the levy aims to tackle. 

First, the 2002 Local Government Act and 1991 Resource Management Act task subnational authorities with sustainable development and resource management responsibilities. When these intersect with the tourism sector, significant funds are needed to cope with infrastructural pressures and environmental impacts from visitors. Being unable to use effective and equitable tools such as local tourism taxes, many communities are now in damage-recovery mode socially and environmentally. This makes them also poorly equipped to reap the economic benefits of the relentless surge in visitors. Other communities struggle to become attractive tourism destinations and need help to develop tourism sustainably. 

The International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy tries to ensure that subnational funding models achieve better ‘intra-generational equity’ for ratepayers – i.e., set obligations and responsibilities on consumers, citizens or businesses proportionate to how much they contribute to the problem or how much they use a particular resource or infrastructure.

Decisions are still to be made (presumably based on submission inputs) on the kinds of local infrastructures funds will support. Will these mainly try to capture economic growth, such as more car parks? Will we see meaningful investments in carbon-friendly transportation and accommodation options? Will investments prioritise eco-effective waste and sewage management infrastructures? How will they mitigate/prevent biodiversity and land impacts from nature-based tourism?

Second, legislation requires the Department of Conservation (DOC) “to allow” for tourism when it doesn’t damage nature and landscapes. The previous National-led Government implemented a comprehensive Protected Area commercialisation strategy. The current Conservation Minister hasn’t yet explicitly changed this policy direction. But even if the number of international visitors to Protected Areas stagnates, sustainable and sufficient funds are still needed for visitor infrastructure expansion and maintenance. The proposed levy introduces intra-generational equity for taxpayers just as it does for ratepayers.

Third, DOC’s top-tier policy objectives are biodiversity recovery and ecosystem enhancement, which must be prioritised above tourism and recreation. After three decades of operation, DOC has been unable to reverse declines in biodiversity and freshwater quality in the lands it manages. The crisis of native birds has recently been explored in the former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report Taonga of an island nation: Saving New Zealand’s birds. New Zealand’s tourism-related and broader environmental problems have been well documented by academics, researchers and advocacy organisations. 

Regulatory frameworks have historically allocated DOC and local governments more responsibilities for biodiversity, the environment and tourism than they allocated decision-making competences to successfully pursue them. This has led to a wide range of problems, of which only some are irreversible: biodiversity and ecosystem loss. Other environmental problems are only slowly reversible, over long timespans, like water and soil pollution, soil erosion. Climate change is a challenge for the sector too. 

An optimistic view of the tourism levy would see this as a first step toward fixing the regulatory design flaws that have co-created the decades-old impotency to protect species and the environment. An alternative view would see it as a modest step that, while finally introducing intra-generational equity for ratepayers and taxpayers, still prioritises economic growth based on conservative indicators.

Perhaps the latter view would be more realistic. While the levy is part of a broader tourism-focused governmental programme, all other instruments are concerned with infrastructural costs, aiming to make room for more tourism. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment  discussion document mentions five criteria “the package of funding tools should meet”, none of which aims to achieve better environmental and biodiversity outcomes within and outside the Conservation Estate.

Numerous New Zealand-based scholars have produced research, published in highly rated international academic journals, documenting how governance innovations may reverse unsustainable relationships between tourism, biodiversity and a wide range of environmental aspects. In many countries, decision-makers have close collaborations with the academe. 

If the Government is committed to comprehensive governance innovations for a tourism development that is environmentally enhancing, not just ‘safe’, New Zealand would benefit from engagement with academics keen to apply their expertise for betterment of nature and people. The Environmental Policy and Politics Network of the New Zealand Political Studies Association would be an effective entry point for such collaborations.

While the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy, and the programme it is part of, are long-awaited regulatory and policy fixes, more is needed to address all problems linked to the three types of challenges outlined above. The imperative remains for the Government to take leadership in bringing New Zealand’s environmental and conservation legislation in line with 21st-century sustainability sciences, to protect ecosystems and species against irreversible harm.

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