Island visitor levy decided

    Taupo couple Stephen and Heidi Thompson were excited to visit Stewart Island for the first time this week as going there has been on their bucket list for about 20 years. Photo: Luisa Girao

    SOUTHLAND District Council (SDC) has decided Stewart Island visitors will pay a $10 visitor levy from October 2023, which will increase to $15 in October 2025.

    Four options were presented to SDC. Cr Frazer threw a curveball when he suggested a sliding scale levy which caught members and staff unaware as it had never been presented as an option by either staff or submitters.

    Cr Darren Frazer suggested to start at $10 and increase it $1 a year over a period of time.

    Several options had been fielded via the submission process, including no increase, increases to $10 or $15, and high/low season levies.

    SDC staff said increases needed to be justified with each time.

    But Cr Frazer suggested if $15 could be justified, a sliding scale increase could also.

    Southland District Deputy Mayor Ebel Kremer ordered a meeting recess after he reprimanded staff for the conflicting legal advice they were providing council members.

    “I am getting two different signals from that table… You guys need to have a bit of chat and make sure you are all on the same page.”

    Stewart Island resident and SDC councillor Bruce Ford said the community had expressed genuine concern a levy change would impact on visitor numbers and hoped the council would honour its wishes and favour an increase to $10.

    Cr Ford said one of the collection agents had said they would refuse to collect the levy if it increased to $15.

    In hindsight, a regular review would have been a better approach and recommended it be adopted in the future.

    But SDC staff said reviews of less than five-yearly, would be “inefficient” as any review was a 12-month process through the system.

    SDC research data had revealed the current $5 levy, introduced in 2013, would be insufficient to fund future visitor-related activities. Any costs not covered by the levy would need to be covered by SDC ratepayers.

    Submissions had expressed concern an increased levy may deter visitors to the island. But most had favoured an increase to $10.

    Stewart Island tourism operators were fearful domestic visitors would go elsewhere with the island’s visitor levy increase.

    Since New Zealand closed its borders in 2020, operators described 2021 as their best summer in the last 30 years.

    While there had been a drop in visitors numbers since then, there was still steady demand from people wanting to visit.

    Stewart Island/Rakiura Community Board chairman Jon Spraggon, who also works at the ferry wharf, said the island had been busy for this time of the year.

    “Usually we have more locals and a couple of people using the ferry around this time of the year but we just had a group with 40 tourists on a Monday. The island is busy good,” he said.

    He believed many New Zealanders still wanted to tick the island off their bucket list, but said there was a mixed feeling that a potential hike in the visitor levy could scare people off.

    “We [the ferry] is $85 already. If you … [add another] $15 you reach $100. Once you go over the $100 mark, you turn people away because they are looking at three figures. In particular, if they are coming for a day for a short trip.”

    Kai Kart owner Sue Graham said this season was not as good as 2021, but there was still a great number of visitors for this time of the year.

    Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience owner Furhana Ahmad also opposed the increase but for different reasons.

    There was a need for better thinking on how to use the levy money, she said.

    “Us, as a community, want to see in a very specific way how this money can be spent instead of spreading it to too many things. We need to focus on what is important like the jetty and roads,” she said.

    “Do I think the increase will be a deterrent for people travelling down here? To be honest, no. I think people who really want to come to Stewart Island will not see a big difference between $5 to $10 for example.”

    Taupo couple Heidi and Stephen Thompson were enjoying a holiday on the island for the first time earlier this week.

    Mrs Thompson said she had had the island on her bucket list for 20 years.

    They said both would not mind the increase, but believed many tourists especially the younger ones rethink their plans if the trip became too expensive.

    “It has been forever we wanted to have holidays here but we never minded . . . when we were planning our holiday, we thought it was now or never.