Tourism funding model needs changing for biodiversity’s sake

The Department of Conservation is subsidising the tourism sector, which needs to be reversed for the preservation of protected areas says Dr Valentina Dinica.

Dr Valentina Dinica
School of Government researcher Dr Valentina Dinica

In-depth legal and policy analysis by public policy and sustainability expert Dr Valentina Dinica reveals that since 2009 the Department of Conservation (DOC) has been increasing indirect subsidies to the tourism sector, at a time when approximately 2800 native species are in decline.

"New Zealand's biodiversity is in crisis—tourism is not. Currently, tourism is worth $35 billion to the economy. And yet, only between 3 and 4 percent of DOC's annual budgets have been generated in recent years from concession fees paid by businesses operating in Protected Areas. Tourism user fees have been similarly low."

By contrast, about a third of DOC's budget is spent on recreation facilities for tourists, with increasingly more money going towards infrastructural demands for international tourists who are the main clients of concession-holding tourism operators.

Dr Dinica recommends a reversal of the subsidy relationship between DOC and the tourism sector by giving DOC a greater range of financial instruments.

"We should use financial instruments, such as tourism taxes, national park entry fees and a wider range of user charges. New Zealand citizens and residents could be excluded, or charged at lower rates, to recognise their contribution as taxpayers. Some countries raise as much as 80% of the funds needed for conservation from such sources."

However Dr Dinica says that historically, there has been a "persistent lack of political willingness by New Zealand governments" to introduce any such financial tools.

"More concerning is the philosophy of post-2009 governments that any pressures on ecosystems caused by increased tourism volumes would be more than compensated for by the willingness of businesses and communities to volunteer, donate or provide corporate sponsorships.

"There is no evidence around the world that mass tourism in Protected Areas in combination with voluntary mechanisms leads to conservation gain. Besides, ecosystem integrity depends on more than just species conservation.

"New Zealand is running a risky governance experiment. When biodiversity is in crisis, we cannot rely on volunteering."

She says a more effective policy response lies in making better use of the legal framework, which allows DOC to introduce conservation and environmental responsibilities in concessions contracts.

Dr Dinica interviewed 42 concession holders and reviewed 16 concession contracts.

"Currently, concession contracts generally specify what businesses must not do, in order to avoid harming nature. But there are no specifications of what businesses should do to help with biodiversity conservation."

While a few concession holders volunteer for conservation, most businesses reported not being required to do so through concession contracts.

"Concessions are incredibly powerful tools for sustainable tourism. There's an opportunity here for DOC to use the provisions of the 1987 Conservation Act to introduce conservation responsibilities for businesses, and give life to the widely cherished idea that doing business in Protected Areas is not a right, but a privilege that comes with additional responsibilities."