By Steve Baron

TO OUR astonishment, mayor Hamish McDouall has finally come out of the closet ... the freedom camping closet, that is.

And he has motivated me, as all good leaders do, to come clean and out myself as well. So, herein begins the great freedom camping debate of Whanganui ...

I am, however, a bit more upmarket than mayor McDouall, who admits to sleeping in his car.

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My experience was with a Toyota Hi Top campervan, travelling around Australia for nearly four months, a few years ago.

We freedom campers often get a bad rap. We have all seen the disgusting sights of a few notorious freedom campers on TV and in the newspapers -- the shocking sights of freedom campers defecating in the street and dropping rubbish in our pristine national parks and conservation lands is appalling.

But that is the job of the media -- to inform us, to educate us, to entertain us, to shock us, and to sell us their product.

Perception is reality -- so if we hear shocking stories like these about freedom campers, we start to believe that freedom campers are all the same and that they are a real problem in our community.

The fact is that these shocking cases are actually few and far between.

They tend to be in isolated places where there are simply no facilities, and, when nature calls, there ain't no stopping her.

The reality is that there is no pressing problem here in Whanganui at present, and there is unlikely to be any in the future, much as some district councillors would like us to think so.

Bad rap: Freedom campers -- scourge or economic opportunity?
Bad rap: Freedom campers -- scourge or economic opportunity?

The real problem I faced, as a freedom camper, was not finding a public toilet (McDonald's are everywhere), it was finding a place to shower. And what a pleasant surprise it was when I came across a small regional town that offered one.

Those were the places I tended to stay longer and spend more money.

Not surprisingly, freedom campers visiting Whanganui like to stay centrally located by the riverfront, near the i-Site centre.

I did the same when I was travelling Australia -- motor camps were often expensive and I did not like the lifestyle at those places, while others were simply shanty towns for the homeless and desperate.

There is no doubt a new toilet facility is needed near the riverfront -- not just for freedom campers, but also for the throngs of visitors at our thriving River Traders' markets every Saturday.

On that issue, I blame former mayor Annette Main and a small dedicated group for creating such a popular enterprise.

Like councillor Rob Vinsen, I think the old dangerous goods store is inappropriate as a public toilet. It has better uses -- perhaps a coffee outlet, as has been suggested.

These public toilets would be best accessed directly off Taupo Quay so passers-by can see and use them, keeping them slightly away from our picturesque riverfront.

As a reformed freedom camper, I would highly recommend including showers in any new toilet facility, and I would have a holder by each entry with brochures that showed visitors all the attractions Whanganui has to offer. What better distraction could there be while tourists went about their business?

Freedom campers are an economic opportunity that places like Whanganui simply cannot afford to pass up.

They are an important part of our economic development--attracting tourists and keeping them here for as long as possible. That is why I started a campaign aimed at accommodation providers, encouraging them to use the slogan "Two days is NEVER enough in Whanganui".

Unfortunately, it does not seem to have gained much traction, but it is seeds like this that we need to plant in the minds of tourists. Even if they do not stay longer this time, they may do so next time.

Let's not make a political football out of these proposed riverfront toilet facilities.

There is no reason why freedom campers should be discouraged from stopping over down on our riverfront -- it is an ideal park-up spot and we do not need to waste time creating unnecessary new bylaws.

We simply need to offer freedom campers the facilities they need to encourage them to stay longer and spend all those tourist dollars they will otherwise spend in other towns. Let's just get on with the job -- stop the politics and make some sensible business decisions.

Steve Baron is a Wanganui-based political commentator, author and Founder of Better Democracy NZ. He holds degrees in economics and political science.