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Price hike for Great Walks: More money, fewer tourists

Routeburn track. Photo: Dept of Conservation

Great Walks fee trial successful, says the Department of Conservation.

Increased pricing for tourists on some of the Great Walks tracks this past summer has meant far fewer tourists but an extra $2.4 million for the Department of Conservation.

The 2018/19 season had 31 percent fewer international adult visitors to the tracks, but 37 percent more adult New Zealanders compared to the previous year.

DOC introduced a trial of differential pricing over the summer, with overseas visitors paying $140 a night for a hut on the Milford track, $130 on the Kepler and Routeburn, and $75 a night on the Abel Tasman track.

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New Zealanders paid roughly half that, and under 18-year-olds stayed free of charge.

One expat called the move a "money grab from tourists".

Despite the marked changes in visitor numbers - from 42,630 New Zealand adults up to 58,418 and from 104,189 overseas adults down to 71,901 - DOC was playing down the effects of the pricing. The number of New Zealanders using the tracks was the highest they'd been in the last six years.

Pricing and economics director Laura White said the department considered the seven-month trial had gone well, providing "a significant amount of information" and showing differential pricing "has merit as a visitor management tool".

"However, we express caution in fully attributing these results to differential pricing as there are a number of other factors that influenced these results (such as weather, a slowing in international visitor growth over the summer, and the short notice of the trial for visitors). This is why we will re-run the trial, unchanged, for 2019/20 season."

The trial did appear to have been successful in getting people to use some of the country's other walks, but that had not been verified, she said.

"Visitors told us they walked other tracks due to the cost, however the size and significance of this increase could not be determined in the monitoring we undertook on other tracks we considered may be used as a substitute to the four great walks," Ms White said.

The trial had three objectives:

  • improve access to the Great Walks for people usually resident in New Zealand
  • increase the proportion of costs that are received from international users
  • charge international visitors a fee that more fairly reflects the high value of the experience

"The independent evaluation of the differential pricing trial found the trial met two of its three objectives - increasing access for New Zealand residents to the walks and international visitors contributing more towards the costs of the walks," Ms White said.

"However, the third objective - that the fee more fairly reflected the true value of these experiences - had a more mixed response. New Zealand residents generally supported it but international visitors less so. While we want to ensure access for New Zealand residents on these walks, it's also important we listen to our international guests. Next season's results will inform how we price our experiences longer term."

The extra $2.4m from the trial would be used to maintain the tracks so the department could focus its funding on core conservation work, she said.

DOC hired an independent contractor to evaluate the pricing trial.