What a welcome to 2021 we've had – glorious weather, just enough rain to top up the tanks and uncrowded, warm-water, white sand beaches. With everything that's happening in the rest of the world, it seems surreal the amount of freedom we're enjoying here in New Zealand.
No doubt many of you marked the New Year with a holiday break resting at home or exploring our big safe island backyard. In fact, the global pandemic's most noticeable impact on us this summer has been the lack of international tourists, especially at our freedom camping sites.
I noticed this because freedom camping is currently front of mind for our councillors. We are now in the deliberations phase of the Camping in Public Places Bylaw review, where we consider the information and opinions received in the submissions and formal hearing.
The review phase finishes in February, with the final shape of the new Camping in Public Places Bylaw available soon after and the final bylaw coming into force midway through this year.
While we wait to see what the new bylaw looks like, freedom camping is undergoing other significant changes this summer, triggered by the flow-on effects from Covid-19 international travel restrictions.
At this stage, we only have an indication of what those effects will be through statistics published by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in their National Freedom Camping Report.
According to the report, our total freedom camper numbers for December 2020 dropped by 53 per cent on those of December 2019, and our international camper numbers by 58 per cent.
Not unexpectedly, Kiwi freedom camper numbers increased by 22 per cent last month, with council's own provisional data showing 25 per cent more locals freedom camped in our district in December 2020.
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As summer and our busy camping season recede, it will be interesting to look at the broader impact of these freedom camper changes on our communities and businesses.
While much of that is spent in city businesses, our smaller communities do receive a portion. They also benefit from Whangārei's sustainable freedom camping programme that encourages freedom campers to contribute money, time or labour to a local conservation project, to buy local and patronise our commercial campgrounds on a regular basis.
For these and other reasons, Whangārei welcomes sustainable and responsible freedom campers, although where, when and how they can camp here in the future is yet to be finalised.
I want to thank everyone who contributed to the review of council's Camping in Public Places Bylaw, and I also wish to thank our wonderful volunteer freedom camping ambassadors.
You are community heroes who help visiting freedom campers understand our rules, showing the manaakitanga which is our Northland trademark.
These good people make happy campers of us all.
• Sheryl Mai is mayor of Whangārei.