Free tourist access to attractions like Punakaiki's Pancake Rocks and the Cape Foulwind seal colony is too costly for ratepayers, says Buller Mayor Garry Howard.

He wants a user pays regime and a tax on tourists entering New Zealand. Places like the West Coast needed the extra funding to cater for tourism, Howard said.

"It is an industry and it does need supporting. It's struggling to cope with the increase in tourism and the burden it's placing on ratepayers, particularly small population areas."

Infrastructure funding for tourist attractions should come mainly from the Government, not ratepayers, because the main users were tourists, he said.

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Howard accepted user pays would cost New Zealand its point of difference as one of the few countries where tourists could visit natural attractions for free.

"Can we sustain that point of difference is the question."

The West Coast, which has just over 31,000 residents, catered for 850,000 tourists from April to December last year. Up to September Coast tourism grew at 11 per cent compared to 8 per cent nationally.

Since then Coast tourism has been boosted by the impact of the November earthquake on Kaikoura. At a key pressure point, Springs Junction, the Buller council has installed six new toilets paid for by almost $200,000 from the Government's Regional Mid-sized Tourism Facilities Grant Fund.

The money was initially allocated to Fox River, on the Coast Road, which also needs toilet facilities.

Howard said more infrastructure, particularly toilets, rubbish collections and in some cases roading, was needed for the tourist influx.

"Punakaiki should definitely, absolutely, have some means of collection to be able to facilitate rubbish, toilets and enhancing the attraction that is there. The Department of Conservation (DOC) is very limited in funding, given what it has to manage. It needs a user-pays element."

He revealed that his council had lobbied for a $2 car parking fee at Punakaiki, with the revenue to be split between the council and DOC. He said the Minister of Conservation had rejected the proposal, but it was up for discussion again. It would raise considerable revenue to provide infrastructure.

Howard said Punakaiki needed an underpass so its 500,000 visitors a year could safely cross State Highway 6 to access the Pancake Rocks.

He declined to say who would pay for the underpass, which could cost upwards of $200,000. "It's all part of an evaluation that's currently going on at Punakaiki."

He said the Coast also needed new and upgraded hotels.

"If we're going to get serious about tourism, and actually try and get the higher end of tourism, one of the ways is to start accommodating for that higher end by having four-star plus hotels on the West Coast."

Work was underway to attract hotel development.

However, the mayor said the Coast should not pin all its hopes on tourism.

"I want to make sure we facilitate it and it is part of a diversified economy here - that we don't just change from mining economy to a tourism economy and just jump from one fire into another.

"It's just got to be part of the mix, but it's a very important part of the mix.

"But let's be brutally honest - as far as Buller, in terms of Westport to Karamea goes, we're in the backwash until something is done with regard to a northern link access."

Howard has been promoting a 56km Wangapeka Road Link between Karamea and Nelson so tourists don't have to backtrack once they reach Karamea. A road would almost halve the distance from Nelson to Karamea to 169km.

The West Coast Growth Study, released last September, said the road proposal would only stack up if there were significant broader benefits to the West Coast.

The study said initial reports suggested the road would be challenging to build and expensive to maintain. It might have significant environmental issues as it passed through Kahurangi National Park.

It could increase visitors to Buller but several stakeholders had said it might not bring major benefits to Karamea.

The growth study plumped for tourism as the Coast's major immediate opportunity for jobs. It said the region must develop more iconic attractions and products and commercialise more tourism experiences.

- Westport News