Freedom campers or freeloaders?

Campers at QLDC's free camp site, Red Bridge | Photo: Wanaka Sun

To encourage New Zealand freedom camping, or to discourage freedom camping, that is the question. It is one that spans energetic conversations, spurs council decisions and influences revenue. As of late, it is question of which one Upper Clutha woman wants further clarity, and she has suggested an answer: “ban foreigners from freedom camping and stop pretending that they are responsible and prevent the freeloaders.”

In a statement sent to the Wanaka Sun, Sarah Burdon, who co-owns The Camp - Lake Hawea Holiday Park, chastised Queenstown Lakes District Council’s (QLDC) summertime trial of camping services currently in place to help manage the influx of campers to the district. The QLDC plan includes two free overnight camping sites, near Kingston and at the Red Bridge near Luggate, two service hubs in Frankton and in Wanaka on Ballantyne Road, as well as employing responsible camping ambassadors to educate and monitor the hubs and trouble areas.

“So, QLDC council, I congratulate you because I believe that your trial was to show everyone that these people travelling around our country are freeloaders and should not be allowed to freedom camp in New Zealand,” said Burdon.

She went on to state “they are not responsible”, and that Government should “stop foreigners from freedom camping. It is not adding value but taking from NZ tax payers.”

She also claims tax payers work too hard to support these “freeloaders,” that 98 percent of campers who purchase or hire self-contained vehicles do not use the required portaloo on board due to sanitary reasons or resulting smells, that the QLDC provided recycling and rubbish disposal signs are confusing and that the hubs do not follow the 1985 Camping Ground Regulations. She concludes that a user-pay system, similar to a commercial holiday park set up, is instead a viable response.

While Burdon said several of QLDC’s trialed initiatives prove that campers are “not really camping but freeloading,” QLDC remarked that the initiatives have been effective and are agile enough to be altered if they are not working.

QLDC communication officer Rebecca Pitts said that council is happy with how the hubs are working at this stage in the trial, which is being funded through a grant from Central Government.

“So far we’ve had 3352 self-contained vehicles through the Wanaka service hub since it was launched in November; 7615 individuals have filled in the WiFi survey since going live (2606 in the last two-week period). There has been an average of 40 vehicles a night using the Red Bridge site,” said Pitts.  

“Our ambassadors have been monitoring the whole district over the busiest period and we’re noticing the changes. Compared to last year, we have seen less rubbish left in known local hotspots, more recycling coming into the service hubs, less complaints from local residents, people wanting to upgrade to self-contained vehicles and positive messages about the district through camping channels and word-of-mouth.”

Pitts said the ambassadors have distributed over 19,000 education flyers to campers, which outline behaviour expectations and direct non self-contained vehicles on where to camp.

Adam Hutchinson, founder of GeoZone, which launched the free New Zealand travel app CamperMate, shared his thoughts on the topic with the Wanaka Sun. He said there has been substantial growth in the number of domestic and international travellers choosing to travel to the country in a campervan since the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

“When it's sustainable, people have the right information at the right time and people are well-behaved, the model works well and the local economy benefits. CamperMate plays an active part in working toward this goal of making motorhome tourism more sustainable. Yes, some users choose to freedom camp, some only stay in commercial holiday parks and some choose to do a mixture of paid and free accommodation.”

He added, “If we look at the hundreds of billions of user events that have been generated from the CamperMate app since it began in 2011, we know that commercial holiday parks, such as Lake Hawea, benefit directly from CamperMate users, many of whom have been freedom camping prior to paying to stay.”

Hutchinson said commercial holiday parks are the most searched for category, more so than freedom campsites. “Digging a little deeper, we can also see that of those people that have arrived at many local holiday parks around Queenstown and Wanaka for the night, many have indeed visited one of these hubs during the day.”

The Wanaka Sun asked a few international travellers, who choose to travel the country by campervan, how it feels to be assumed a “freeloader”.

“I take this personally, as my friend and I were not freeloaders whatsoever. We spent a significant amount of money for the campervan experience, which directly supports local businesses. Much of the South Island's revenue comes from tourism,” said 34-year-old Lindsay Baugh, who used CamperMate to select her self-contained van’s camping locations.

“If the campervan experience changed significantly for tourists, it could deter many of us from travelling to New Zealand to enjoy this compelling camping feature, which is unique to the country. I think there is a way to bridge the gap; it's hard to justify paying $40 plus a night to stay at a holiday park where you are neither using more than 15 to 25 percent of the facilities nor staying on-site for a long period of time seeing you are out exploring the beautiful, pristine country. I believe most people, even tourists, want to keep New Zealand pure.”

Karly Foster, 26-years-old, and her sister, Emma Foster, purchased a non-self-contained van when they arrived to New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa and started the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) programme. Karly Foster said she found most of their campsites, including freedom camping and at holiday parks, through CamperMate and vowed to camp responsibly due to a deep respect of Aotearoa.

“I agree there needs to be some improvement to the system; however, I certainly do not consider myself a ‘freeloader’ as I worked, paid taxes, farmed, cleaned people’s entire houses, cooked, and provided care of people and their homes all essentially for free through WWOOFing,” said Foster. “I believe the solution to the problem is to have more toilets and not ban tourists from a system that is extremely efficient, accessible and overall benevolent for both foreigners and locals. I believe a tourist tax would help solve a lot of these issues.”

She added that camping at a holiday park every night is not cost efficient for travellers and that the suggested requirement would out-price many travellers from future tourism experiences.

Any illegal camping or poor behaviour can be reported by calling 03 441 0499 or 03 443 0024.


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