Better rules proposed for freedom camping

  • Hon Stuart Nash
  • Public consultation launched on ways to improve behaviour and reduce damage
  • Tighter rules proposed for either camping vehicles or camping locations
  • Increased penalties proposed, such as $1,000 fines or vehicle confiscation
  • Rental companies may be required to collect fines from campers who hire vehicles
  • Public feedback is sought on proposals to improve the regime for freedom camping, to protect our environment, remove unfair burdens on locals in some destinations, and lift the quality of tourism.

    Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has released a discussion document with ideas to better manage freedom camping to reduce the negative impacts on local councils, communities, and our 100% Pure brand.

    “The most consistent complaints I hear about the tourism sector relate to abuse of the freedom camping rules,” said Mr Nash. “A sub-group of visitors are spoiling the experience for more responsible campers and for locals who are left to clean up the mess.

    “In Northland, growing pressure from a surge in freedom camping saw Whangarei ban the practice at coastal sites this summer. Marlborough District Council found 500 vehicles tried to illegally camp over summer. Golden Bay locals say bird nesting sites are threatened by campers. In Queenstown, freedom camping is banned within city limits.

    “Backpackers and budget travellers are welcome. Responsible campers in motorhomes, caravans or budget vehicles in campgrounds are welcome. But it must be ‘right vehicle, right place.’ This document asks for public feedback on the future of vehicles that are not self-contained.

    “Freedom camping in self-contained vehicles has a place for Kiwis and international visitors. However change is needed where vehicles are not self-contained, so communities have more confidence in the system. We want clear rules and expectations so we can deliver a high quality visitor experience.

    “Improving freedom camping regulations will go a long way to changing campers’ behaviour and protecting Brand New Zealand. Abuse of the system threatens the unique and precious qualities that make us such a desirable tourism destination in the first place.

    “These proposed changes are in line with our priorities for tourism once borders can safely re-open. We want to re-set tourism on a sustainable model, mitigate the negative impacts associated with tourism, and elevate Brand New Zealand. The time to do so is now, before we fully reopen to international tourism.

    “Changes will also support small business owners who run campgrounds or backpackers’ hostels, who have lost business. Private campgrounds offer sites from around $20 a night. DoC has hundreds of campsites, many of which are free or as low as six dollars a night.

    “Over the last three years, the government invested $27 million in council facilities and programmes related to managing freedom camping. A second fund, for communities with high visitor numbers but small ratepayer bases, has allocated $59 million on tourism infrastructure.

    “The funding has helped councils with things like ambassador programmes for campers and extra waste management services, and in some areas helped to build infrastructure like toilet blocks, freedom camping sites, carparks, waste water treatment sites and dump stations,” Stuart Nash said.

    The discussion document seeks public feedback on four main proposals (see pages 17 to 28 of the discussion document). Other ideas to improve the system are also welcome.

    The first two proposals are alternatives:

    1. All vehicle-based freedom camping would be limited to certified self-contained vehicles only

    Or

    2. Vehicle-based freedom campers would be required to either stay at a site with toilet facilities, or stay in a vehicle that is certified as self-contained. Freedom campers on public conservation land and regional parks would be excluded from this requirement.

    Other proposals are:

    3. Stronger powers to enforce the rules, including:

    • A regulatory system for certifying self-contained vehicles involving checks on the people doing the plumbing work and issuing the certificates, and a centralised vehicle register
    • Tougher penalties and fines
    • Requiring vehicle rental companies to collect fines, and
    • Additional grounds for confiscation of vehicles that breach freedom camping requirements.

    4. Strengthening the standard for self-contained vehicles, including testing whether it should align with the recommendation from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that would require toilets in self-contained vehicles to be permanently plumbed in, rather than merely portable.

    ENDS

    QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

    Detailed information is also available in the Discussion Document.

    What is freedom camping?

    Freedom camping is staying free of charge overnight in a tent, caravan, or motor vehicle, on public land, within 200 metres of vehicle access like a road or carpark, the coast or harbour, or a Great Walks Track. Freedom camping rules do not apply to private land.

    How has freedom camping changed since the law was introduced in 2011?

    A freedom camping law was introduced to cope with an influx of visitors for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It put the onus on local councils and the Department of Conservation to identify areas where freedom camping was restricted.

    At the time, the number of freedom campers was estimated to be in the tens of thousands. It has since ballooned to around 245,000 in 2019. Attempts to better manage it have had some success at improving camper behaviour, but issues remain and even the absence of international tourists has not lessened the issue for local councils, some of whom have toughened their bylaws over the 2020/2021 summer.

    What are some of the numbers involved?

    Research by MBIE shows there were an estimated 245,000 freedom campers in the 2019 calendar year. Around 154,000 were international visitors and 91,000 were New Zealand residents. These visitors freedom camped an estimated 2.67 million nights.

    Domestic freedom campers spent an average of $552 per person per trip.

    International freedom campers who bought vehicles spent an average of $7,912 per person per trip, compared with $5,864 for those who hired a budget vehicle and $4,890 for those who hired a premium vehicle.

    The top three areas in New Zealand for freedom camping in 2019 were all in the South Island: Tasman district (151,000 camping nights), Queenstown-Lakes District (137,000) and Christchurch city (128,000).

    The most popular North Island areas were Thames-Coromandel district and Tauranga city with 127,000 and 126,000 camping nights respectively.

    The average age of a domestic freedom camper was 63 years of age. The average age of an international freedom camper who purchased their own vehicle was 26 years compared with 33 for those who hired a budget vehicle and 42 years for those who hired a premium vehicle.

    Under these proposals could I still pitch a tent in the backcountry, or sleep in the back of my car if I’ve had too much to drink and can’t drive home?

    Yes.

    Freedom camping rules do not apply to camping in remote or wilderness areas that are more than 200 metres from where you can drive, Great Walk Tracks or coastlines.

    Freedom camping rules have never applied to circumstances where someone pulls off the road to take a rest from driving. Waka Kotahi/NZTA actively encourages fatigued drivers to rest for road safety reasons.

    One of the proposals (no. 2 – requiring people to either stay at a site with toilets or in a self-contained vehicle) also would not apply to freedom camping on DoC land or regional parks, but this point is open to public submissions.

    The proposals are not intended to allow local authorities to target homeless people.

    How would change be implemented and who would enforce it?

    Enforcement would continue to be carried out by local councils and the Department of Conservation.

    MBIE has advised that responsibility for certifying vehicles as self-contained would most appropriately fall to the professional oversight body for plumbers: the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board.

    The Motor Vehicle Register, operated by Waka Kotahi/NZTA, could be updated to include information about whether a vehicle is certified as self-contained.

    What sort of costs are estimated to convert a vehicle to be self-contained?

    A basic conversion for a freedom camping vehicle to ensure it has a self-contained portable toilet is estimated at around $500-$800. Certification costs are estimated to be about $125 per vehicle.

    Self-contained vehicles must conform to a minimum standard for sanitary fixtures and fittings, including having a toilet, and being able to hold three days of fresh water and waste water. Under the current New Zealand Standard for self-contained vehicles, vehicles that are able to meet the minimum requirements range from basic vans with portable toilets, to premium motor vehicles with hot showers, sleeping platforms, fixed-toilets and cooking facilities.

    How can I have a say?

    Submissions can be made online, by email or mail.

    MBIE tourism officials will also hold public information sessions in provincial and urban towns around New Zealand, as well as webinars for people who are not able to attend a meeting.

    The discussion document and details about how the public can share their views is available at https://www.mbie.govt.nz/have-your-say/

    The public consultation opens Friday 9 April 2021 and closes on Sunday 16 May 2021.

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