More powers sought to manage freedom camping

12:06 pm on 24 December 2020

A group of tourism industry heads and mayors want more power to manage freedom camping, including a national vehicle track and trace database.

Freedom camping

Representational image. Photo: RNZ

However one long-time freedom camper is worried low-income Kiwi families will soon be shut out of some of the country's most picturesque locations.

In November, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash announced plans to ban renting vans to tourists unless there is a toilet on board.

It follows years of poor behaviour by freedom campers, many young international tourists, who bought or hired cheap vans that did not have toilets, leaving behind their mess for councils and residents to clean up.

In 2018, the Responsible Camping Working Group was set up after protesters began blocking off parking sites, taking car keys off visitors and complaining en masse to local government.

Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into resolving the problems including $60 million invested by the Tourism Infrastructure Fund into roads, toilets, shower facilities, bus shelters and car parks, and $25m through the Responsible Camping Fund into education and enforcement, signs, waste management and technology pilots.

In recent months some councils have changed their bylaws to shut freedom camping sites or ban any vehicles not self-contained.

Now a letter to Nash from members of the working group including the mayors of New Zealand's two biggest tourism destinations, calls on him to go further.

The letter asks for:

  • A regulatory system for the current Self-Contained Vehicle Standard [SCVS]
  • Empowering councils to determine where and how people freedom camp
  • A national database to track and trace freedom camping vehicles including those which certify to the SCVS
  • Increasing penalties for freedom camping in non-certified vehicles at sites designated for self-contained vehicles and in the places where freedom camping is prohibited or restricted
  • Deploying technology to support councils to advise campers where they can and cannot camp.

It also asks Nash to consider extending the Responsible Camping Fund to support councils to manage higher visitor numbers during summer.

"We would also like you to consider investing in further innovative and technological solutions to support the management of freedom camping and potentially to trial payment for local infrastructure services."

The letter was signed in early and mid-December by Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick, Central Otago mayor Tim Cadogan, Christchurch deputy mayor Andrew Turner, New Zealand Motor Caravan Association chief executive Bruce Lochore, Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts, Holiday Parks New Zealand chief executive Fergus Brown and Tourism Holdings Ltd chief executive Grant Webster.

The group said their number one priority was ensuring people can trust the self-contained vehicle standard.

But last year a group called the Responsible Campers Association Inc [RACi] said the New Zealand Standard for self-containment of motor caravans and caravans, discriminated against many freedom campers.

That group said it excluded people in tents and meant divers, fishermen, surfers, hunters and others who only wanted to stay one night, could not without the certificate which required campers to be self-contained for at least three nights.

They said education was key, rather than fining people.

Fines of $200 can apply to incorrect vehicles but the Freedom Camping Act 2011 states that councils "must not absolutely prohibit freedom camping", and one council recently admitted that if a camper challenged the fine it was not worth the cost of going to court.

Complicating matters, in 2019 it was revealed some freedom campers were obtaining or making self-contained stickers for vehicles that did not comply.

Long-time freedom camper Paul Arthur said if the minister introduced the changes being sought in the letter, it would make access to some of the country's prime camping spots inaccessible to poorer New Zealanders.

"If things go the way they want, which they will because our friends are affluent, well-organised and have a plan, then we'll have a very different New Zealand in a few years' time where the only people who can stay at beaches are the wealthy or the landowners."

Arthur said commercial campgrounds were often expensive options, as was owning or renting a self-contained campervan.

"I fear for the next generation of Kiwis who would love to see more of our country but will be unable to afford the 'industry approved' motorhome, or stay at campgrounds at current prices."

Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult denied ordinary New Zealanders would miss out if the requests were introduced.

"The first thing that we did is set out to protect the rights of Kiwis to do what Kiwis have always done and that's enjoy our outdoors."

He did not think increasing penalties, a track and trace system or a regulatory system for vehicles would make freedom camping out of reach for low-income New Zealanders.

"All this is about is ensuring people don't poop in the woods, look after our environment, don't wash their greasy dishes in our pristine lakes and rivers and respect locals when they go to other districts."

Boult said single night visitors were top of mind when the group - which includes the Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - met.

"One of the long discussions we had was about surfers being able to sleep in the back of the car and enjoy the surf break in the morning, as I did when I was a teenager, providing there's a place to go to the toilet."

Boult said a regulatory system would ideally involve national certification of self-contained vehicles, similar to a warrant of fitness for a car.

He said the minister had acknowledged the letter and was previously "understanding of the issue and supportive of doing something about it".

Department of Conservation director of heritage and visitors Steve Taylor said DOC maintained hundreds of reasonably priced or free campsites throughout New Zealand.

He said while most campers were responsible, some caused problems such as leaving behind human waste and litter, lighting fires and causing damage to vegetation.

He said DOC restricted or prohibited camping at problem sites.

"Where camping is restricted or prohibited, or infringements take place, the department can issue instant $200 fines for people who do not comply."

There are more than 200 sites listed on DOC's website where camping is prohibited or restricted.

no metadata

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs