Taxing Tourists to Save Our Species

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment27 Comments

It isn’t often that turkeys vote for Christmas, but the tourism industry has done just that, stating they are open to charging visitors to fund infrastructure. This is no doubt in the face of public pressure at the ever mounting tourist numbers and the smelly problems they leave behind. Prime Minister John Key has offered up $12m for local facilities.

However, the largest piece of tourism infrastructure we have in this country is not our public toilets. It is our natural environment, and that is similarly underfunded. A tourist tax could go a long way to solving these problems.

Through the Department of Conservation, the taxpayer currently spends just over $300m protecting our native species and maintaining things like tracks and huts.

Meanwhile tourism is our biggest export earner, tipping dairy at $13.5b. If we include domestic tourists the industry is closer to $30b.

Our main tourist attraction is nature – 41% of visitors come here primarily for nature, and virtually all visitors (85%) do a walk or trek while here. Walking has overtaken rugby as our national sport.

If you have an asset that generates a return – like your car, house or a machine – you invest in maintaining it. We’re not doing that with our main natural asset – at the moment DOC funding is around 1% of tourism revenue.

The needs are immense. Only DOC can comment on the shortfalls in hut and track maintenance, but we have some idea of the biodiversity challenge we face.

New Zealand has the highest rate of threatened species in the world. Around 81% of our birds, 88% of our reptiles and 72% of our freshwater fish are endangered. Most of our native species are not found anywhere else in the world – we have a global responsibility. The problem is that we are still losing the war.

Recent Government funding should stop the decline in kiwi numbers, but most other species are still on the downward trend. For example North Island kokako occupied 9% of our forest in the 1970s, but this is down to 2% now. This loss happens in the remote back country, and demands action on a massive scale.

But New Zealand has no active plan or strategy to prevent extinctions. DOC manages 30% of the country yet only has $20 to spend per hectare. There is lots of great work happening on the ground by Councils, community, iwi, OSPRI and DOC. But nobody, not even DOC, has oversight of saving our native species.

What would it take to prevent more extinctions? We need a plan, with funding and oversight.

How much funding is needed? In the long term new technologies will help make regions predator free so our native species can flourish. Short term the priority is just to stem the loss of endangered species. At the moment large scale 1080 drops are the only option – $25m more per year (not the one off drops we see at the moment) would control predators over 4m hectares of forest (half of DOC land). That would be enough to stabilise most native species while we work on a more lasting solution.

We also have huge problems with weeds, particularly wilding pines. We need to get on top of this problem before it gets unmanageable – $30m per year would do the trick.

That is roughly $60m per year needed to solve the immediate crisis. Over time as new technology emerges that money could be reinvested in ways that could help our environment flourish, rather than simply trying to hold the line.

The only question is how do we raise the cash?

Many other countries overseas charge tourists and citizens alike merely to enter their parks – in New South Wales the charge is $A190 per year. But let’s face it, most of New Zealand is a park. Why not just sting tourists at the gate and save the administration costs?

A $20 charge on all tourists entering the country would raise $60m per year. If the money is matched by locals there would be more than enough money to stem the loss of our native species, landscapes and invest in tourism infrastructure. Sound like a deal?

Tourism and nature need each other to flourish, which requires a delicate balancing act. This year’s EDS Conference ‘Wild Places’ will look more deeply that issue.

We still need a plan for saving our native species and someone in charge to coordinate all the disparate conservation efforts and make sure the money is spent in the best way possible. Most Kiwis probably think that is DOC’s job, but they are simply caretakers of their estate.

In the meantime let’s raise some cash to help us hold the line – a tourist tax makes sense.



Dr Marie Brown                                                        Geoff Simmons

Environmental Defence Society                            Morgan Foundation



Taxing Tourists to Save Our Species was last modified: May 17th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.

27 Comments on “Taxing Tourists to Save Our Species”

  1. I entirely agree. There are only two stipulations and that is our national parks must be free of charge to all New Zealanders, as we pay for them through our taxes anyway, and that money collected should go straight to DOC and not into the consolidated fund. 60m should go to DOC, and $25 per tourist is a fair ask.

    1. So where does one distinguish? I agree that an entry charge is the cleanest and simplest way to address the very real costs of tourism on our natural environment and infrastructure. This will apply to all areas and should not distinguish the rich from the ‘poor’ tourists because the so-called poor tourists are the ones who put the most pressure on our natural areas and campsites. The second issue is the allocation of any revenue collected. Does it go into the consolidated fund (and hence into an unaccountable black hole) or is its allocation targeted to those areas where tourism impacts most?

      1. $25 per person for all non New Zealand residents. Definitely NOT in to the consolidated fund but strictly allocated to DOC’s national park upkeep and other areas where tourism has the greatest impact to keep infrastructure up to demand. Or a collection for the DOC aspect of the National Parks could be collected at the 3 main national parks in NZ and the funds distributed to maintenance and upkeep of the national parks, huts, native bird protection and loos and a lesser tariff on entry to the country for distribution to areas where tourism impacts the most. Needs people with common-sense allocating where the $ go and to be accountable. No New Zealanders should be charged.

    2. Charging *anyone* to enter parks is fraught with problems. For starters quite a few parks have public roads running through them – e.g. Arthur’s Pass. Charging people to enter would essentially be imposing a road toll. Not happening.

      1. I understand your view Mike. The possible way around this is to collect the NP fee for overseas visitors at three main national parks that would not create difficulty and then those funds be distributed to DOC. The important thing is that it goes to DOC, DOC’s budget is not reduced but enhanced to enable them to cope with the increased numbers of visitors and that under no circumstances does it go into the consolidated fund…. OR collect it on entry to the country and it goes straight to DOC and those small communities being deluged by visitors….

  2. Hi Geoff. I’m sceptical about taxing and charging tourists, because I struggle to see how it can be done efficiently and without creating new problems, inconsistencies and bureaucracy elsewhere.

    Given we’re not talking about massive amounts of money here (in the grand scheme of things), is the fundamental problem really that the conservation estate is not being appropriately valued, as opposed to there not being enough money available to fund it?

    If that’s the case, then what’s to say that $60m taxed on tourists at the gate won’t ultimately end up simply being used as an excuse, whether by the government of today or the government of tommorrow, to remove $60m of the existing Crown funding? Because, y’know, we seem to be funding Vote Conservation based on what Cabinet deems it deserves rather than what it actually needs. What’s to say that in a few years we wouldn’t have a conservation estate that so *heavily* relies on tourism funding to the extent that it’ll be in critical danger if the tourism industry starts to fail?

    I do agree with much of what you’ve said. Just not so much the conclusions.

    I recently browsed some of Tourism New Zealand’s Annual Reports as part of writing . It’s telling that of the $120m that TNZ spent in the year-ending June 2015, $45 million of that was spent directly on its 100% Pure New Zealand Campaign, which leverages largely off the Conservation Estate for attracting people to New Zealand.

    Tourism New Zealand, rightly, goes to lengths to justify its spending by citing the billions and billions of dollars and billions that its marketing generates for New Zealand’s economy, yet no mention’s made of either the investment that’s needed in the Conservation Estate asset it uses to attract people, nor mitigation of the negative externalities that are inflicted on the Conservation Estate by increased tourism.. and there are lots.

    I fail to understand how it can be justifiable to fund the marketing of tourism based on the revenue it generates, yet not justifiable to fund the conservation estate on the same premise as the other half of the equation. Ideas like adding gates and bureaucracy and administration for taxing tourists is searching for scraps around the edges, using politically manipulative arguments about who allegedly has or hasn’t paid of stuff to rationalise it.

    In the scheme of things it seems ridiculous to me that New Zealand isn’t simply properly investing in its conservation estate based on the extraordinary economic benefits we already *know* it generates.

  3. This is a good idea in theory, but I don’t trust governments not to undermine it. If $60m is gathered this way, how long will it be before the government says to DOC “since you are getting $60m in tourist tax, we can cut your funding by $60m”. The end result – DOC ends up with no more money and the tourist tax effectively goes in the government coffers.

    1. Exactly! And the point I made to Mary above. If it goes into the consolidated fund it would be like road user charges – not spent on road repairs and upgrades. This government hates DoC and keeps an eye on public opinion to decide policy. If immigration continues unabated, there will be a dilution of those who understand and love our natural areas and biodiversity enough to want to protect them. This is just as much an issue for tourism, as evidenced by the freedom camping environmental debacle.

    2. I agree. It should NOT impact on DOCs current budget and the $ must go to where it is needed to protect our national parks and assist small towns to cope with tourism impacts etc with infrastructure to cope.

  4. If overseas inbound tourism earns $13.5b pa, then the GST on that is around $2b. We already tax the tourists plenty it just the Governemt chooses to spend it on other matters. Gathering measly $60m more isn’t going to change a thing until the will of those in power changes to value the environment more, and THAT isn’t going to changes until the electorate changes it view.

    1. Yes. It’s killing the goose that lays the golden eggs unless we do something to sort this situation out immediately, to get more $ for DOC to be able to maintain the parks and for councils in smaller areas of population to be able to ensure that people are directed to proper facilities and not leaving “deposits” all over the place.

  5. Borrow the governments own funding criteria. For every dollar collected by way of a tourism tax the government should match dollar for dollar.

  6. DOC is seriously underfunded. It annually wins the “best place to work” award, but is the lowest-paying government entity by a hefty margin. Out in the sticks, where many of its staff work, DOC staff are the only bit of Government the locals see and interact with, and many of those locals are in the anti-1080 brigade. Not an easy mix. How about our Minister of Tourism (John Key) forget tax breaks for the rich and the wannabes and up the DOC budget.

  7. In keeping with the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s policy of “High Value. Low Impact” tourism a Minimum Daily Package is required for tourists. To learn more about the Minimum Daily Package, please follow the link below: – See more at:
    The minimum daily package for tourists travelling in a group of 3 persons or more is as follows:

    USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December.

    USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.
    These rates are applicable per tourist per night halt in Bhutan.

    What about the CO2 factor (and the low wages)?

  8. I wrote this exact idea in a Listener letter a few weeks back. Why the National government and tourist operators think tourists, after travelling halfway around the world, will baulk at coming if we tax them at the border is ridiculous. If they do, then they weren’t type of tourist we want anyway but the cheap freeloading type who don’t want to pay for anything. Our tourism industry shouldn’t be aimed at the lowest common denominator but at those who appreciate the natural landscape and quality of experience we’re trying to provide. Given the poor job we’re doing at maintaining our biodiversity it’s only fair we should try to fund by any means we can, including the cash cow of tourism.

    1. Good on you Peter, re the article. Totally agree with the points you make. I wrote to both the govt and DOC about this idea in 2010, and it is also outlined in my book, Matagouri and Other Pricks – The Journey to Aoraki/Mount Cook (published 2010). It’s great to see this getting some traction.

    2. You need to bear in mind that not all overseas visitors are tourists. How do you ensure you only charge tourists – as opposed to business visitors or people visiting family? A flat charge at the border on all non-citizens would be bad and wrong and unfair; not happening.

      1. I think you’ll find on your entry card you declare what you’re here for and how long you’re staying. If you’re here for a short visit for business or to visit family then you wouldn’t be charged. Chances are, if the latter, you’re already a NZ citizen anyway.

  9. Excellent idea
    As long as the money goes to DOC as extra and the government does not try and reduce DOC funding

    1. Yes, and the way the government will react to this (and ‘react’ is the operative word describing Key and his cronies) depends on a media that is willing and able to hold them to account if tourism revenue that is meant to go to DoC is misallocated. We had the ‘Panama Papers’ but this was a fizzer because the media merely swallowed it and shat it our undigested, so the government was able to ride it out. The Official Information Act has become corrupted by the unwillingness (even outright refusal) to comply with requests. MPI refused to release data on chicken feed and manure contaminated with velvet leaf seed on the grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’. We can hope Peter Bouchier will do a job his predecessor was simply unwilling to do and hold the bureaucracy to account. If the OIA can finally have some teeth and the media is willing to test it on tourism revenue allocation issues, then the government would find it hard not to front up or face real charges of corruption. But then again, the current extreme levels of new immigration would merely dilute the numbers of voters who actually care about our natural environment and biodiversity and, in the end, voters are the ones this government listens to. The whole thing is a very scary thought!

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