Concerns levy rise may deter tourists

Stewart Island residents are encouraged to have their say on a proposal to increase the visitor levy on the island. Photo: File

STEWART Island tourism operators are open to debate over a possible increase to the island’s visitor levy but fear it could put extra pressure on tourists and affect businesses.

The Southland District Council (SDC) began seeking views of stakeholders and the community last week on a proposed visitor levy rise as part of its visitor levy policy and bylaw review, to be formally consulted on next year.

The visitor levy has been set at $5 per person since it was established in 2013, but a proposal to increase the rate to $15 in 2018 was criticised by residents and operators, who wanted a strategic review of service delivery to the island.

SDC senior policy analyst Carrie Williams said last week the review had been completed and the amount collected via the levy was “significantly less” than the required spending projected for the island annually.

On average, about $160,000 in levy funds was collected per year, she said.

“Allocation of the revenue generated by the levy is not guaranteed to support council or community projects or activities, regardless of its benefit to visitors, as it is at the discretion of the allocation subcommittee.

“However, having increased revenue available to apply for would alleviate funding constraints.”

SDC wanted to know if the community supported a rise and, if so, by how much.

Stewart Island Backpackers co-owner Aaron Joy said it was hard to estimate what would be a fair increase, but he believed any increase would affect businesses on the island.

“Some people come to the island and don’t mind paying the currently $5 for the levy and that is fine. But putting this [amount] up can have an impact for other visitors.

“What I can say is that we want to see the rationale behind it.”

Some tourism regions in New Zealand overcharged tourists, and he did not want to see this happening with his beloved island, he said.

“We don’t want to be seen as one of these destinations that rip off people… We provide a service and want people to have a great experience here.”

Rakiura Adventure owner Manfred Herzhoff said he did not think the increase would affect his business, but would impact the island as a destination because it would make the experience more expensive and push tourists to other regions in the country.

He was open to debate as he was aware the cost of infrastructure on the island was high, but it was not fair making visitors pay the bill.

“It [the levy] is just smokescreen for the desperation that there isn’t enough [ratepayers’] money to spend here.”

Real Journeys Fiordland and Rakiura experiences general manager Russell Thomas said the company collected the levy on behalf of SDC, and any increase would obviously be passed on to visitors to the island.

“As a business, we would agree this levy should increase to improve infrastructure. Any potential increase would improve the visitor experience by enhancing the facilities on the island.”

How much the levy rose should be a matter for SDC to decide, he said.

A survey on the matter is available online and drop-in sessions on Stewart Island and in Invercargill would be held this month, subject to Covid-19 alert levels.

The feedback would help SDC formulate a proposal, which would then be formally consulted on next year.