Tourism contributes about $35 billion annually to New Zealand’s prosperity. Our unique biodiversity and landscapes are major attractions for the ever increasing numbers of international visitors who are the main clients of tourism operators in our Protected Areas. At the same time, our country struggles with the highest numbers in the world of endemic species threatened with extinction or deemed ‘at risk’.
Reversing the continuous biodiversity decline is not an easy task. Actually, the biodiversity crisis may sound paradoxical, as New Zealand is leading the world by allocating a third of the country as ‘public conservation land’. However, the financial challenges are enormous, for three main reasons: the large size of Protected Areas, the small taxpayer base on which state budgets may draw and the magnitude of the conservation challenge. Over-reliance on state funding is not a financially sustainable strategy.
The Department of Conservation (DOC), which manages publicly owned Protected Areas, collects concession fees from tourism operators. However, on average, these contribute less than 3.5 percent to DOC’s budgets. At the same time, more than 34 percent of budgetary allocations are spent on “recreational expenses”, including tourism-related facilities and services and the management of business concessions. DOC is subsidising tourism, while facing a huge financial gap to save precious native species and sustain ecosystem services.
Many countries where tourism is a major user of Protected Areas fund conservation largely through financial tools. Examples of tools with proven environmental effectiveness are tourism taxes, entry fees and user charges—all of which may exempt nationals, to reflect their contributions as taxpayers. Some park authorities earn as much as 80 percent of their revenue from such sources.
In New Zealand, however, there has never been political appetite for such tools. Nor has there been political willingness to use regulatory instruments for ‘conservation gains’, despite the 1987 Conservation Act allowing the state to do so. Under Part III on concessions in the Act, the Conservation Minister and DOC staff have the authority to insert not only environmental management but also conservation responsibilities in concession contracts.
Extensive contract analysis and interviews with numerous tourism operators revealed that these legal powers are seldom utilised to halt biodiversity decline. Most concession requirements are formulated in terms of what-not-to-do in order to avoid harming nature, or rectifying damage, rather than determining what businesses need to do for biodiversity conservation.
It is an opportunity missed that these legal provisions aren’t used as a basis for formal partnerships between DOC and concessionaires. This is concerning from an ecological viewpoint. The planet is currently going through its sixth mass extinction and yet tourism is not required to do its fair share to save species, despite rocketing revenues.
“Biodiversity is not just something nice to have—it plays a crucial role in the ecological health of the planet.”
Instead, recent governments have been implementing a yet unwritten governance reform strategy for Protected Areas, which over-relies on voluntary approaches for ‘conservation gains’.
Since 2009, several restructurings of DOC, significant policy changes and some legal amendments have been implemented based on a policy hypothesis for which no evidence is yet available worldwide. The hypothesis is that if DOC contributes to national prosperity through tourism in public conservation lands, any ecosystem pressures from increased economic activities would be more than compensated for by the willingness of others to do conservation work. ‘Partnerships’ with businesses and communities are expected to take the form of contributions through volunteering (staff labour and access to relevant equipment or vehicles from operators), philanthropic donations from tourists and businesses, and commercial sponsorships.
My research on the concessionaires’ views on the recent strategy indicates there is very limited interest to volunteer. A key reason is biodiversity conservation is viewed as a state responsibility and a matter of state leadership. Operators are not keen to learn conservation skills and allocate the human and material resources DOC hopes for, unless there are private benefits.
Some concessionaires would only volunteer if DOC agrees to change the zoning of National Parks to allow for more tourism facilities and activities. Others expect monopoly rights for the use of major tourism facilities currently open to the public.
The environmental policy literature and best practice overseas shows that voluntary instruments are best relied on preventatively, not to recover from situations reaching crisis point. There is increasing policy evidence abroad that voluntary partnerships deliver low and unpredictable funding. Typically, less than six percent of the agency funds are reported.
Biodiversity is not just something nice to have—it plays a crucial role in the ecological health of the planet and is crucial for safe human development. It influences climate stability and there can be no prosperity without ecological safety for humankind.
For biodiversity recovery, the backbone of policy programmes needs to be carefully crafted around regulatory and financing instruments. We need to re-examine our policies, make full use of existing legislation and reverse the subsidy relationship between DOC and the tourism sector.