Mackenzie Mayor Graham Smith on the challenges of building tourism infrastructure, why the regions need a reliable source of income to fund it, and the changes planned for the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd.
Mackenzie is one of the largest districts in the country but it has only 4,400 ratepayers. However, we have more than two million visitors descending on our district each year and that has put a lot of pressure on infrastructure, whether it is waste disposal, toilets, roads – the costs of maintaining or building it is all coming back onto our ratepayers.
I have met both Tourism Minister Paula Bennett and Prime Minister Bill English on the issue of infrastructure funding. We are asking for central government funding, be it from a visitor levy or a redistribution of GST, because we believe we need some mechanism that will allow the tourists who use or need infrastructure to help fund it. It is infrastructure that needs to be put in place so they can have a good experience in our district.
Unfortunately, PM Bill English has told me quite clearly that the National government is not prepared to introduce any new taxes, which rules out a border levy. But if we want to manage our tourists we need a regular income flow from them to assist us with the building and management of infrastructure.
One of the biggest problems we are dealing with at the moment is providing protection around attractions like the Church of the Good Shepherd at Tekapo. At the moment, we have hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving at the Church each year, almost swamping it. We need to change the roading, we need to change the area around the Church, we need to offer it some protection.
We estimate the cost of protecting it to be between $500,000 to $1m, although we would do it in stages. One thing we have to do is remove buses from coming close to the front door of the Church. We do not want to ruin what is now one of the world’s “must see” attractions – the Church of the Good Shepherd and its night sky.
We received $405,000 from the first round of the now closed Regional Mid-sized Tourism Facilities Grant Fund to help build new toilets at Tekapo. We also received more than $600,000 from the second round of the fund, which also went to building toilets. So, we received about $1m all together in co-funding from that fund. Under that old fund’s rules, 50% of the total cost of that infrastructure falls back on our ratepayers. At the end of the project, our ratepayers still have to pick-up maintenance and depreciation.
We will be applying for funding for the work we want to carry out at the Church of the Good Shepherd without much co-funding. I had a meeting with Tourism Minister Paula Bennett in Queenstown and she said the government wanted to change the criteria for the $100m Tourism Infrastructure Fund to make it easier to apply for it.
The problem is, it is still a case-by-case basis. What we need is an income stream. What we don’t need is this lumpy, bumpy, jump over some hoops, apply and maybe you will get some funding. That plays havoc with our long-term planning and it plays havoc with our financial management of the district. So, it will remain a real concern until we receive a regular supply of income that can match and manage our tourists’ demands.
I was at the Local Government New Zealand conference three weeks ago and all of the other three major political parties recognised that tourists who come here need to pay. Whatever may happen, we need a simple system to tax tourists and the distribution of funds raised should go to where the tourists go.
The freedom camping news announced by the National Party the weekend last was definitely good news. It frustrates me that we have to get to an election before the government will recognise there are deficiencies in these areas. In Tekapo and Twizel, we have a no camping bylaw in place because we were getting overrun in towns with freedom campers. And we have wardens to enforce the bylaws.
So, we have tidied up freedom camping on our council-controlled ground but it just pushed the problem out onto LINZ and DOC land and we have been trying to get on the same page so we can manage the problem between us. I am all for freedom camping but it has to be responsible freedom camping.
I will say that tourism in Mackenzie is a very good thing and it has given us a lot of wonderful opportunities. For example, property prices continue to soar, so there are some very big positives to come out of tourism. The question is, how do we manage it?