When Ryan Turney's mother, Gerardine, learned her son had been told he could not stay at a Blenheim backpackers she hit the roof. "I found it hard to believe," she told the Herald. "I'm actually speechless."
What left her lost for words was the policy of Leeways Backpackers to turn away New Zealanders because their reputation preceded them. Young Kiwis, it appears, are not well-behaved guests in their homeland. Leeways, it transpires, is not the only provider with a closed-door code for nationals. In Marlborough, which draws the backpacking community because its vineyards and orchards provide seasonal jobs, other establishments report adopting the same no-Kiwis policy because of their troublesome reputation.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for the ventures. Anyone who has stayed at a backpackers knows the atmosphere tends to be international and for the most part friendly and inquiring. The network of New Zealand backpackers caters for tens of thousands of young visitors, employs hundreds of people and, along with hotels, motels and holiday parks, is one of the four principal accommodation options for tourists, including New Zealanders.
Ryan Turney's experience raises the question whether Leeways, or any other backpackers, has the legal right to turn someone away. Under the Human Rights Act a property owner who discriminates against someone because of their ethnic origin or nationality risks breaking the law. Further, previous negative experience with a guest of a particular race is not a valid reason to rule out future guests of the same race.
The law provides an exception for "shared residential accommodation" with regard to national or ethnic origin. But does a backpackers enterprise, run on commercial lines, fall under this definition? This appears to be a grey area.
The Human Rights Commission says the exception was designed to cover flatting or boarding arrangements, not commercial providers. However, the exception could apply if there was some kind of communal living arrangement.
Places where backpackers stay straddle these setups. Some small, family-run lodges could be comparable to boarding places. Larger institutions often tend to resemble commercial providers, but with a communal atmosphere. Leeways caters for 34 guests and says the atmosphere "is like a huge share-house".
According to the commission, prior case law indicates that a "common sense approach" needs to be applied and that the purpose to which premises are put is key.
One thing is clear, though. No provider should be expected to house oafish guests who make life unpleasant for everyone else.
But equally, it is wrong that New Zealanders travelling through their own country should be unable to stay with foreign tourists doing their thing, especially when the law rightly forbids discrimination.
There would appear to be scope for an enterprising lawyer to ensure anti-discrimination laws work as they were intended to.
Debate on this article is now closed.