As Queenstown mayor Jim Boult expressed his delight at the district’s visitor levy referendum result this week, some accommodation operators have branded it a “disaster”.
Opponents of Queenstown Lakes District Council’s plan to introduce a bed tax say the mayor’s claims of resounding community support for its plan are “misleading”.
And they are calling for any visitor levy to be applied to all businesses which benefit from tourism within the district, saying it unjustly targets only accommodation providers.
The referendum saw Queenstown and Wanaka residents deliver an 81.37 percent vote in favour of a tax which would see a five percent charge added to nightly visitor accommodation charges across the district, with the levy going to support local tourism infrastructure.
Mayor Jim Boult said the referendum sends central government a definitive message from the local community.
“Our people have given this Council a clear mandate to engage with central government on the next steps. The support shown for the proposed visitor levy says this is something that locals recognise is desperately needed.”
Describing the turnout as “significantly higher than anticipated” at just over 41 percent, Mr Boult said: “I am delighted that our community was motivated to vote on this issue.”
Local accommodation providers, many of whom united as the district’s Tax Equity Group to fight the plan, argue the council’s claim of a clear mandate is misleading, with only 33 percent of voters expressing their support for the levy.
“The 81 percent cited by the Mayor is 81 percent of 41 percent who voted, i.e 33 percent of eligible voters voting in support,” said the 128-member group’s spokesperson Nik Kiddle.
“77 percent either did not vote, or voted against the tax. This falls well short of any mandate to make new law.
“We hope that ministers will see it that way too, and put this issue aside to focus on genuine national priorities.”
The stance is supported by peak industry body Hospitality NZ, which advocates spreading the collection of any new levy across all sectors which benefit from tourism in the Queenstown Lakes District.
Nigel Humphries, accommodation sector chair, told AccomNews: “What Mayor Boult has referred to as “a very, very clear message” and a “clear mandate” from the community in support of a visitor levy in QLDC in fact represents only a 41 percent voter turnout in the region.
“What we are really looking at is a much smaller slice of approval within the community than the council are willing to concede.
“From the outset, the council has dubbed this referendum “non-binding”, and a fair and workable model for the levy must still be presented and approved by Government. We will continue to advocate that any visitor levy for QLDC be spread fairly among all that stand to benefit from tourism.”
Kiddle added: “We remain supportive of calls from Tourism Industry Aotearoa to return to the region a portion of the GST gathered on visitor expenditure.
“If, however, ministers see merit in making new law to add more tax to businesses in the district, then we will argue strongly for other tourism businesses to pay their share, and not be exempt. Anything short of that would be discriminatory, unfair and inequitable.”
Mayor Boult acknowledged that there would be some within the accommodation sector that were not happy with the outcome.
“I have closely heeded every counter to this proposal to ensure that we had not overlooked anything and whilst I respect there were opposing views I did not hear or see anything that swayed my view and clearly that was the case for the majority of our community,” he said.
“It has been a fair, democratic process conducted independently under the Local Electoral Act. I would request that people respect that due process has been followed and give us a chance to now to seek a dialogue with Central Government on next steps.”
Airbnb welcomed the referendum outcome, head of public policy for Australia and New Zealand, Brent Thomas, describing it as an “historic” result and a recognition of the importance of visitors paying their fair share to support the region’s sustainability.
“A new visitor levy would help council to build the infrastructure the community needs without burdening locals with higher rates,” he said.
“The mayor and council should be applauded for having the vision to pursue such an innovative and importantly necessary policy.
“We now ask government to respect the clear mandate from the people of the QLDC region and introduce the laws needed to deliver a new visitor levy.
“Airbnb stands ready to work with council in the implementation of the visitor levy when it passes into law.”