The Department of Conservation is investigating charging overseas visitors higher fees for huts and campsites on its Great Walks on top of a hike in charges for all users later this month.
The increases announced yesterday are DoC's first increases in five years and come as the Herald this week highlights pressure on them and rising costs of maintenance.
On the popular Milford Track - where up to 67 per cent of visitors are from overseas - hut fees will rise from $54 to $70.
DoC's director of recreation, tourism and heritage, Gavin Walker, said the fee increase was part of a funding review that could in future include charging overseas visitors more.
"That's absolutely still on the table for consideration but we're unable to deploy that [differential booking] process at the moment. What we're proposing is an interim measure as a modest pragmatic response to the increasing use of Great Walks."
The department had this week sent out a request for information from companies who could set up a differential charging system and would want to work with an operator who had run one before.
Walker said DoC would be careful about what premium overseas visitors would pay.
"It's always something to be aware of - I don't think anyone else likes going to other parts of the world and paying a different rate but it is commonplace."
He said in Chile and Argentina locals nearest national parks paid less than residents in more distant cities. Overseas visitors paid most.
Under existing law DoC is unable to charge anyone for entering its estate.
The department says the new hut charges announced yesterday are designed to increase revenue from the walks by about $880,000 a year, which will go some way to bridging a funding gap. DoC is confident it will not "significantly" reduce demand or participation.
"New Zealand's nine Great Walks are our flagship walking experiences. Tracks like the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler are internationally famous and globally rank as some of the great 'must do' outdoor experiences," said Walker.
"Increasingly more and more visitors to the Great Walks are international [about 60 per cent] and the feedback we often get is how amazing they are and how cheap. The reality is we are charging $54 a night for the Milford Track - arguably the greatest walk in the world and this is well below the value that we are delivering for visitors."
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Fees across the Tasman were much higher with the Three Capes Track in Tasmania working out at roughly $180 per night.
"These price changes are based around each walk's demand profile, with our highest-use tracks seeing the largest increase."
More of the Great Walks were now operating at over 90 per cent capacity over the summer period.
"We want to encourage visitors to explore the wider range of equally spectacular tracks in the network and, for Kiwis in particular, to take advantage of tracks suitable for quieter times of year."
It would introduce seasonal pricing for huts on two of the Great Walks tracks, Abel Tasman and Rakiura on Stewart Island. Rates during winter would be lower than in summer.
During the past three years there had been a 35 per cent increase in use in the Great Walks. In the 12 months to April 120,000 people used them.
With higher numbers, the gap between what the department spends and earns from these walks was closing.
"However, overall the department has a $1.2 million shortfall per year on its Great Walks. On top of the high cost of removing all waste from these remote and unspoiled destinations, these tracks are well-formed and have higher standard huts and facilities making them more expensive to build and maintain. "
Walker said user fees made an important contribution towards providing outstanding experiences on these tracks without drawing from DoC's other work.
Any revenue earned above what is needed to sustain the Great Walk experience will be reinvested back into the conservation and recreation priorities of the department, Walker says.
It was maintaining its kids go free policy aimed at making Great Walks accessible for Kiwi families.
"DoC will continue to invest in New Zealand's extensive network of huts and tracks offering fantastic, lesser-known multi-day walks for those seeking quieter, lower-cost experiences."
•A general price increase for the huts on seven of the nine Great Walks (excluding the Whanganui Journey and Lake Waikaremoana) ranging from 6 per cent to 30 per cent (from $2 to $16 more per night) depending on the track's demand profile.
•The Milford track has the highest increase of 30 per cent (from $54 to $70 per night).
•An increase in the campsite fees of four of the eight tracks that have campsites. The recommended price increases range from 7 per cent to 11 per cent (from $1 to $2 more per night) again depending on track use.
The changes would be in place by May 16 when bookings for the Great Walks open.