THE introduction of more designated freedom camping areas in the province is being blamed for the downturn in business for Southland holiday parks over the past several months.
Statistics New Zealand figures show guest nights in Southland holiday parks decreased for the first three months of this year, a 12.7% drop in January, 19.7% in February and 20% in March, compared with the same time last year.
Holiday parks make up 13% of the accommodation market in Southland.
Hospitality New Zealand, Invercargill accommodation sector chairman and Invercargill Top 10 Holiday Park operator Philip Todd said a 20% drop in income was “huge” for the industry.
Mr Todd said the decrease in business was because of the Southland District Council (SDC) opening up more areas in the province to freedom camping.
“While the rest of New Zealand makes the most of the present tourism boom, the Southland region, apart from Fiordland, is seeing a decline in visitor guest nights and that can be put down squarely at the door of a council with no vision, little understanding and even less desire to see growth,” he said.
“Their failure to show tourism operators across the region any respect or even think to talk or consult with them is the heart of the issue, and until that is addressed the south will continue to see falling numbers and tourism spend.”
Holiday Parks New Zealand chief executive Fergus Brown said overall the industry was growing, so there was some concern about the Southland figures.
“Any decrease is of concern, especially when you look at other areas.”
Overall guest nights at holiday parks throughout New Zealand for the year ended March 2017 had increased by 2.2%.
Mr Brown agreed freedom camping could be impacting the industry.
“If you provide a free option and a paying option… nine times out of 10 people will take the free option.
“It is important for councils to consider when providing free camping options, it will impact on a commercial business because they are providing competition.”
SDC environmental health manager Michael Sarfaiti said the council had created 11 new designated sites for “self-contained camping”, the largest being in Wyndham, Lumsden, Otautau, Winton and Edendale.
Areas in which freedom camping had remained prohibited included Riverton, Te Anau and Tuatapere.
Mr Sarfaiti said when the council reviewed its freedom camping bylaw in 2015, it had been guided by the recommendations of the local community boards and community development area subcommittees, recommendations most submitters had supported.
The council had received feedback from submitters about the problems and benefits associated with freedom camping, but no specific concerns were raised about the possible economic harm to commercial providers of camping grounds, he said.
Venture Southland tourism product development co-ordinator Renatta Hardy said month-on-month data tended to be volatile as it was affected by one-time events, such as Easter falling in April this year and in March last year.
For the year ended March, the total number of guest nights in Southland fell 1.2%. Motel/apartment guest nights fell by 5%, holiday parks fell 7.3%, backpackers increased by 18.2% and hotels increased 1% over the 12-month period.
Ms Hardy said the figures were not a concern at this stage and more information was needed to better understand the data which relied on many variables.