2 Jul 2020

Call for visitor levy to be used to help tourism sector recover

12:56 pm on 2 July 2020

The tourism industry remains in the dark about where millions of dollars collected through the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL) will go.

Backpacker in Wellington.

The tourism industry says the levy should go towards businesses struggling. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Most overseas visitors are charged the $35 border fee through visa applications since it was brought in on 1 July last year.

About $57 million has been collected so far with funding to be split between tourism and conservation.

Last August, the government revealed its initial investment of about $18m for the year across four tourism and six conservation projects.

Close to $4m was earmarked for tourism projects in Westland.

Part of that funding has gone towards finishing a cycling and walking track that winds past riverbank and rainforest to showcase Fox Glacier after the only access road in was destroyed by a major landslide last year and repairing the damage was ruled out.

Fox Glacier Guiding chief executive Rob Jewell said he had already noticed the benefit.

"The [number] of visitors that have been using have has just been fantastic - I think far more than we actually expected. It also built car parks for servicing that access road. The popularity of it has been great, it keeps popping up on Instagram and we're really pleased with it. That was all IVL money so we're very pleased," he said.

As part of the August announcement, the government confirmed an additional $23.4m would be invested to ensure ongoing conservation work over five years.

The levy has taken a hit after international travel came to a standstill - it was expected to bring in $80m a year.

But Jewell said the levy remained relevant.

"We're well aware that there's funds there - how best to use those ... maybe that's under consideration, but at this point the government hasn't told us what their plans are. I would certainly hope that they would be working on something because those funds can probably be well used out in the country."

Support small businesses

Mo's Matakana Island Tours owner-operator Tangiwai Manihera-Palmer wants to see the levy supporting small businesses doing it tough.

"They can't just sit on that money and keep pushing it back.

"That's not fair on the rest of us who are trying to grow our business and recover from Covid. If we can all get together and let them know that there [are] places where that money would be well spent and used, even if it is a loan or a grant or a programme," she said.

An investment plan was expected last October, but that kept on being pushed back.

By mid-March, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis acknowledged the plan was running late but said it was only weeks away.

Kelvin Davis

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Then in April, he announced a reboot of the tourism sector including plans to review the levy.

Months down the track, Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts said businesses wanted answers, as many remain in survival mode.

"What's happening with this money that's been collected from the international visitor levy? It seems an area that we haven't really had a strong explanation as to why it hasn't been spent, why the funding decisions haven't been made," he said.

"We'd love to have an explanation as to why the money's not been spent and ideally let's see it come out of that account and actually be put to good use."

Davis said there was no timeframe for the review because the government was focused on the industry's recovery first and the levy targeted long-term, sustainable projects.

"So Minister Sage and I agreed to review the IVL investment plan and then, of course, Covid happened and the world has changed so we will be looking at that investment plan and we'll be making decisions in the future," Davis said.

"International tourism will start again at some time in the future and we still need to make sure we have funding there to invest in those long term, sustainable tourism and conservation projects."

The remaining $15m isn't expected to be earmarked until after the review.

The tourism industry says they want to see that funding in action, not sitting in the bank.

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