An explosion in freedom camping has forced the New Zealand government to set up a working group to address the impact on tourism and communities.
The new body is charged with creating a consensus around the issue, which is dividing the nation over whether its benefits outweigh problems of overcrowding and a lack of regulation.
Tourism minister Kelvin Davis this week announced the make-up of the working group, including Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief Chris Roberts, Grant Webster of Tourism Holdings Limited and Bruce Lochore of the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association.
The number of international freedom campers in New Zealand has nearly doubled in two years, with a report from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment showing visiting freedom camper numbers rose from about 60,000 in 2015 to around 110,000 last year.
While many Kiwis welcome the income it generates, there are concerns about the behaviour of campers and the sheer number of tourists converging on peaceful pristine environments.
According to conservation minister Eugenie Sage, some communities resent seeing their rates spent on facilities for freedom campers, risking a backlash which could mean tourists receive a less-than-sunny Kia Ora on their travels.
Littering, defecating in public places, lighting fires, crowding areas of beauty and clogging car parks with giant campervans are among the accusations levelled at freedom campers by disgruntled locals.
“Tourism is our number one export industry – it relies on New Zealanders welcoming visitors and we need to ensure that locals can enjoy their local reserves without them being congested with vehicles, and we need to ensure that facilities are provided,” said Eugenie Sage.
Grant Webster argued the working group would be a trigger for positive change in a valuable local industry.
“This kind of travel and tourism can really create dispersal to broader regions – it’s going to help economic growth if we continue it,” he told delegates at this week’s Freedom Camping Symposium in Nelson.
“If we shut it down, we really are going to be shooting ourselves in the foot”.
Chris Roberts said the group’s aim was to create consensus on the issue moving forward.
“We hope to reach agreement on solutions that will put a full stop to the debate on how to manage freedom camping,” he said.
“The issues are complex. Some regions welcome freedom campers and would love more, while others want to restrict the activity.
“There is a role for Government to play in providing some national guidance, but every community needs to determine what works best for them.”
Tasman District mayor Richard Kempthorne said councils were looking at a model ‘freedom camping bylaw’ which could be adjusted easily to suit each area.
He argued a one-size-fits-all approach might make life easier for tourists but was unworkable for councils because each had its own unique territory to manage.
“One of the things we’re looking at is having standardised signage, so wherever freedom campers go in the country, they will be looking at the same signs and that will make much more sense,” he said.
Mr Roberts acknowledged that not all free campers were the same, with groups including young travellers, grey nomads, seasonal workers and the homeless. “The majority of campers act responsibly and obey the rules. It’s only a small number who create problems,” he said.
“We know that many New Zealanders enjoy the privilege of free camping so we must be mindful of their rights in this debate.”
In a column for the NZ Herald subtitled Confessions of a freedom camper, travelling Brit Sam Shead describing his touring experience here as “rather stressful” and “unnecessarily expensive”.
He said: “My girlfriend and I are respectful people who care deeply for the environment. As are, I suspect, the overwhelming majority of campers who travel around New Zealand.
“We don’t want to poo in your bushes, urinate in your rivers, or leave litter on your roads.
“We want to leave places as we find them. We also want to stay in the wilderness and get away from it all.
“Today, campers travelling around the South Island typically have to pay to stay with hordes of others at designated Department of Conservation campsites or other official campsites.
“We must have spent hundreds of dollars to stay in campsites that, in our heads, we didn’t need to stay at.
“Finding peace and solitude in the New Zealand countryside turned out to be harder than we’d anticipated because of the country’s ridiculous camping laws.
“Something needs to change.”
The working group is due to provide initial recommendations in the next few months.