Sunday , July 22 2018

Special Report: Freedom Campers a continuing challenge

Summer lies just ahead and with it will come the benefits and problems created by thousands of freedom campers taking to the roads to enjoy the scenic beauties and wonders of New Zealand.

Most communities will welcome such campers for the spending money and potential employment they bring. But to some, particularly in smaller communities on the tourist trail, they will also be a source of annoyance for the detritus they leave behind. And when their parting gift on the landscape is what should have gone into a toilet, or occasionally some damage, that can be particularly unpleasant. And with record numbers of tourists likely to take to our roads in the next few months in their motor homes or with a tent in their car or van, the tourism industry’s strategy to manage any problems is likely to come under a great deal of pressure – and scrutiny.

In the Act, freedom camp means ‘to camp (other than at a camping ground) within 200m of a motor vehicle accessible area or the mean low-water springs line of any sea or harbour, or on or within 200m of a formed road or a Great Walks Track’. In the general understanding, freedom campers can include those staying at DOC sites and designated areas. Many areas designated for freedom camping offer access to public toilets and water.

Responsible Camping Forum

Freedom campers have been the sources of a good deal of focus by some key players in the tourism industry here. As a consequence, the Responsible Camping Forum was set up in 2007 to manage community, social and environmental issues around freedom camping. Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA) spearheads the Responsible Camping Forum to manage community, social and environmental issues around freedom camping. The forum has around 30 members from the tourism industry and central and local government, and regards campers as an important sector of New Zealand’s tourism industry because they travel widely through the country, tend to stay a long time and spend money on a wide range of good and activities. Since its inception, the forum has succeeded in achieving a unified stance on how best to manage freedom camping in New Zealand. While some degree of enforcement is required, Forum members believe they can reduce that through education and helping campers embrace the principle of kaitiakitanga (social and environmental responsibility).

MBIE Insight

In August 2016, the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment published Insight on freedom camping by international visitors. Its figures suggested that around two percent of all international visitors experienced freedom camping while here, but that figure is nebulous as it could mean as little as one night of such camping in an extensive holiday of paid accommodation. Although other parts of the industry have disputed its statistics, MBIE indicated that about 10,000 freedom camped in the early years of this century, but the numbers grew rapidly, plateauing to about 60,000 in the last five years. Its figures show total spending by freedom campers has increased significantly to around $250 million per year. At an April 2016 meeting of the New Zealand Responsible Camping Forum, attendees agreed to a three-pronged approach to tackling issues associated with freedom camping, focusing on information, infrastructure and infringements. In its media release on May 4, 2016 the Forum, headed by TIA chief Chris Roberts, emphasised its commitment to improve freedom camping management. In part the release stated:

Story-2-Chris-Roberts-2015-e1466503593798-300x247 Special Report: Freedom Campers a continuing challenge
Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa

The New Zealand Responsible Camping Forum was established in 2007 and brings together representatives from the tourism industry, rental vehicle operators and central and local government.

In reviewing the past summer, Forum participants were united in their view that freedom camping should not be banned but that improvements could be made to the way it is managed, Mr Roberts says.

Tourism Holdings Ltd (THL) has New Zealand’s largest fleet of campervans for hire. Chief executive Grant Webster says stronger measures may be needed to ensure travellers without self-contained vehicles camp only where toilet facilities are available. Getting information about freedom camping to travellers using private vehicles was another challenge.

“The majority of rental vehicle operators support the aims of the Forum and strongly encourage their clients to stay in commercial holiday parks or other designated camping sites. But many visitors buy cheap cars or vans – social media may be the best way to reach out to this group.”

Holiday Accommodation Parks Association of New Zealand (HAPNZ) Chief Executive Fergus Brown says the Forum accepts that there will always be some people – both New Zealanders and international visitors – who do not want to stay in commercial or other designated camp sites.

“Communities must decide whether they want to allow freedom camping in their area and then have the ability to enforce the rules. Forum participants identified that current infringement regimes, such as being able to collect fines from international visitors, were not working effectively enough,” Mr Brown says. “We also want to work with local councils to ensure freedom camping sites aren’t established in areas where they directly compete with local holiday parks.”

The Forum has produced free resources to help rental vehicle operators and the wider tourism industry, visitor centres, councils and other organisations and businesses promote the responsible camping message. The website provides a ‘one stop shop’ for camping, including information on eco-wise practices, keeping safe, regional camping, facilities and where to stay in New Zealand.

Legal ramifications

Free camping is legal in the right places. DOC provides around 50 free camps. Legislation was introduced in August 2011 around freedom camping and local councils are able to issue fines to people freedom camping in non-designated places. One careless night could cost miscreants an instant fine of $200 if they:

  • camp or prepare to camp where it is not allowed
  • damage the area they are camping in
  • dump waste or rubbish
  • refuse to leave an area when told to do so
  • refuse to give information to an enforcement officer
  • camp without a toilet in a place that only allows fully self-contained vehicles.

AMG10-Profile-EdgewaterTeAnau-A8-IMG_1764-300x225 Special Report: Freedom Campers a continuing challengeThey can be fined up to $5,000 if they are convicted of behaving illegally towards an enforcement officer (either a council or DOC worker). They can also receive a court fine of up to $10,000 for a major dumping of waste e.g. a campervan emptying its sewage tank onto public land.

Some councils have been creating new bylaws under the Freedom Camping Act 2011. In July 2012, the NZMCA commissioned public law firm, Chen Palmer, to prepare a guidance document to assist councils and other interested parties in better understanding the requirements of the Act. As a result, some councils deferred their decisions to pass new bylaws, pending further information. Responsible freedom camping can be achieved in a certified self-contained vehicle as these vehicles have the necessary facilities on-board to contain all the occupants’ waste for a minimum of three days. Many councils permit freedom camping in certified self-contained vehicles only. Every district and council has different rules. Some won’t allow freedom camping within one km of the town, or will only allow it in a carpark for one night. Council rules are also different from the rules that must be followed on DOC conservation land.

For instance, the Thames Coromandel District Council specifies:

Freedom camping is not allowed in prohibited areas under TCDC’s Freedom Camping Bylaw 2014. There are several reasons why an area is prohibited, including habitats for endangered species, need to protect public access to reserves, and for health and safety reasons. – All prohibited areas are clearly signposted.

What will this summer bring?

With the recent explosion in tourism here, all the signs are that this summer will prove a big test of the Responsible Camping Forum’s effectiveness, as well as the effectiveness of the Freedom Camping Act and local council bylaws. For instance, at their annual conference in Rotorua in June, after their most successful summer ever, holiday park operators were told that guest nights at holiday parks grew 8.5 percent to nearly 7.4 million in the year to March 2016, and were warned to prepare for an even busier peak season in 2016-17. In September, HAPNZ chief executive Fergus Brown wrote to MBIE, stating his association’s belief that:

Councils where necessary should develop bylaws that state:

  • Freedom camping is prohibited in urban areas.
  • Outside of urban areas freedom camping is restricted to self-contained vehicles which meet NZS5465.

Mr Brown says this standpoint is along the same lines to a recent bylaw introduced by Queenstown Lakes District Council. TIA chief executive Chris Roberts says a number of initiatives have been taken in recent months to address concerns arising from freedom camping. “Some of New Zealand’s major campervan operators are participating in a three-month trial scheme that sees fines issued to campers tagged to the vehicle they are travelling in. When the vehicle is returned, campervan company staff direct hirers to the relevant council website where they can pay the fine immediately to avoid being charged an administration fee. The trial runs to the end of October and its success will then be reviewed.”

Mr Roberts says information on acceptable freedom camping practices is now being included in a letter from Immigration New Zealand to travellers granted a working holiday visa to New Zealand, along with information on safe driving. “TIA has met with the Minister for Local Government and is participating in a review by the Department of Internal Affairs of freedom camping bylaws. “The majority of councils have been happy with the provisions of the 2011 Act and have not seen the need for a bylaw. Many of the bylaws that have been put in place are working well, but some have had unintended outcomes, so a review is useful.”

“The Government has opened the Regional Mid-sized Tourism Facilities Grant Fund, a four-year $12 million fund ($3 million a year), to help communities develop small infrastructure projects that enhance visitor experiences, and enable them to manage growing numbers of tourists and independent travellers. This will cover infrastructure like public toilets and parking areas,” he said.

Only a problem few

The next Forum meeting was scheduled for October 11 (when AMG was going to print) to report on progress on the various work-streams over winter and to prepare for the coming season. Mr Roberts said the key message of the forum remains the same for this summer. “There will always be some New Zealanders and international visitors who like to freedom camp, but we strongly encourage visitors to stay in holiday parks, DOC camping grounds or other designated areas. “It’s worth noting that the vast majority of freedom campers act responsibly and abide by the rules. It’s only a very small number who can spoil it for others. “We also note that many New Zealanders enjoy freedom camping, not only international visitors.”

About Brent Leslie, Industry Reporter


  1. I would be interested to know exactly how the forum actions the following statement from your article: “…but we strongly encourage visitors to stay in holiday parks, DOC camping grounds or other designated areas.”

    • Suzy Barry

      Hello Karen,
      Thanks so much for your great question. Here is a bit more specifically on the Responsible Camping Forum in a article: Chris Roberts is quoted in the linked article as saying: “the central message continues to be ‘assume nothing – always ask’ before deciding to freedom camp”. While the forum is designed to gather information from travellers, it also provides a platform for transmitting messages such as this one from Chris Roberts.
      Suzy Barry, industry reporter

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