I’ve had a number of people ask me why we need to go to a district-wide referendum on the proposed visitor levy. The answer is fairly straightforward. We need to send a compelling message of our district’s residents’ support for the proposed visitor levy in order to empower the central government to pass the legislation required to implement it. That will need both a majority vote and a high voter turnout, so please make every effort you can to participate. Remember we all need to be heard on this one.
On the wider subject of the levy itself, this is an extremely important issue because today we are the ones underwriting the cost of more than three million visitors coming to Queenstown Lakes District annually. We have a one-time-only opportunity to introduce a new funding model; one that could significantly change the way the district funds capital projects, such as improvements to Wanaka’s roading infrastructure, parking or recreation reserves, in the future. One of my platforms when I sought election in 2016 was the introduction of a different funding model. It’s taken two and a half years of intense negotiation with government officials and ministers to get their agreement on this issue and we finally have it. It’s important that we take up this opportunity because I’m pretty sure that if we pass it over, we’ll never get the chance again. And remember this is a special piece of legislation which would be passed only for the benefit of our district, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve had many calls from mayors around the country asking how they might get on board the train!
Some ask why we are proposing a visitor levy. Well, the simple answer is that central government receives an enormous amount of money from the tourism industry in our district by way of GST, PAYE and company tax. Council gets a small contribution by way of rates. Yet our district shoulders the heavy load of being the country’s prime tourism area and, as it currently stands, our rate payers are paying the cost. Whether they’ve come to see ‘That Wanaka Tree’ or climb Mt Roy, we are very conscious that as the leading tourism area in Aotearoa New Zealand, and given tourism is now New Zealand’s largest industry, if the experience of coming to our district deteriorates through lack of infrastructure spend, that harms the whole of New Zealand. So, we need to share the burden by asking visitors to make a small contribution towards the services and infrastructure they use.
I’ve also had a number of questions as to why I favour an accommodation-based levy rather than a wider industry levy. The reality is that practically every business in our district benefits from the tourism industry in some form, so, while attraction operators are definitely in the tourism business, so are the gas stations, the supermarkets, the retailers, the restaurants etc. So if the collection of the levy is taken wider than accommodation then locals simply end up paying again. The other reality is that the only commercial activity that is largely not used by locals is commercial accommodation.
As a model it’s one that ensures that it’s the visitors who are making the additional contribution, not the accommodation or service provider. The accommodation provider would only be the point of collection and we’re working to ensure it’s clearly separated from the direct accommodation charges, along the lines of how GST is seen today. An accommodation-based levy is a common model around the world, works perfectly elsewhere and at a reasonable level has proven not to make one iota of difference to visitor numbers. And to answer the question many ask me, yes, we will collect from Airbnb and other similar peer-to-peer providers.
Next month you will receive voting papers (if you’re registered as a voter in the district or as a non-resident elector) ahead of voting closure at noon on June 5. This is your opportunity to give a clear message as to whether you support the proposed introduction of a visitor levy. If this funding stream is not forthcoming the alternatives of reduced investment or increasing rates and debt are not something I believe any of us want. I strongly implore you to take an interest in this matter and use your vote. I say again, this our one and only chance to get a better financial model and it would be a disaster for the whole district not to enable it to occur.