The impact of Covid-19 on the accommodation sector and a push to support domestic tourism is fuelling renewed calls and lobbying to rein in freedom camping in Whanganui.
But Whanganui District Council leaders are adamant the district's freedom camping friendly rules are the way to go and are here to stay - albeit with some changes possible.
Laurel Stowell reports.
While Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall and district council chief executive Kym Fell see visitors boosting the district's domestic tourism spend, holiday park owners and some residents see people living a "free" lifestyle that is costing them money and cutting into their business.
And they are now lobbying for change.
The Freedom Camping Act 2011 makes freedom camping a permitted activity everywhere within a local authority area unless a bylaw is in place.
Whanganui has no bylaw - but that may change before next summer.
In future stays may be limited, rubbish will continue to be cleaned up and registration is required.
At present people can stop and spend the night anywhere in the district but Fell said it's best they do so at places with facilities like toilets and water.
Whanganui became a motorhome friendly city in 2014, with dump stations put in place and signs at entrances to town.
In February 2018, when Queenstown wanted to ban freedom camping, McDouall appeared on national television welcoming it to Whanganui.
Instead of a bylaw the council has guidelines for freedom campers, directing them to nine places - six for vehicles that are self-contained with their own toilets, and three for vehicles that are not.
It spent $290,000 on putting in new toilets at Jerusalem and toilets, a water fountain, drinking water and a dump station near the Whanganui Multisport Club in Anzac Pde.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment contributed $120,000 of that and it pays a freedom camping ambassador to monitor the sites over the summer.
Vehicle camping is increasingly popular, and 2349 vehicles parked overnight at Whanganui's freedom camping spots in February this year.
The Anzac Pde site was by far the busiest.
After the Covid-19 lockdown camping resumed under level 2 restrictions, but there were fewer people. On May 22 there were six camper vehicles, three station wagons with sleepers and one cyclist's tent at Anzac Pde.
This week Whanganui man Hank Knight spent five nights there in his little camper. He is on a benefit and doesn't want to pay rent. He spent the lockdown in his vehicle, parked near Moutoa Quay.
If there were no freedom camping spots he would just park up in the bush, he said, but being close to town was better.
Also present was Hannah Grundy, a young English woman on a working holiday visa. She and her companion stopped for two nights, to visit a friend, on their way up the west coast.
They sometimes stay in holiday parks, when they want some "luxury".
One of the arguments for freedom camping is the spending motorhome visitors do. New Zealand Motor Caravan Association CEO Bruce Lochore says it's about $100 per day, a figure confirmed by councils elsewhere in New Zealand.
The association promotes motorhome friendly towns to its 95,000 members, and he said Whanganui was one of the best around.
In Whanganui the average freedom camper might spend a bit less, Whanganui and Partners visitor industries strategic lead Paul Chaplow said, because we don't have expensive tourist activities.
But he said the reputational gains should not be underestimated.
"When people get here, without much prior knowledge, they're always pleasantly surprised about the feel of the place, and they go away and spread the word."
Watching the campervans park up at Anzac Pde is galling for Whanganui River Top 10 Holiday Park owner Jeannie Kay, who is struggling to retain staff in a time of low revenue.
The holiday park leases land from the council and pays $16,000 in rates a year. As far as she's concerned the council has set up a free campground in opposition to her.
She and other campground owners will outline their concerns to Whanganui MP Harete Hipango this week. They have also been lobbying the mayor and councillors.
She was disappointed the council resumed freedom camping when level 2 began. She would like it to consult with business owners and limit the length of stays.
At Whanganui Seaside Holiday Park at Castlecliff Beach, owner Karla Swainson has also been "massively" affected by campervans choosing freedom camping over staying with her business.
She said it seemed unfair that people could camp for free at attractive places so close to the city centre, and they did not have to go through all the contact-tracing paperwork that she has to do.
Somme Pde resident Lyn Couper is seeing red from a ratepayer perspective. She would like freedom camping banned.
"I don't see why ratepayers should fund somebody else's holiday when we actually have two holiday parks owned by ratepayers and leased back as businesses by people," she said.
The council should be supporting these local businesses, she said. She doesn't believe freedom campers spend $100 a day, or that an average $30 is too much to pay for a night at a holiday park, or that the visitors would go elsewhere if freedom camping was not allowed.
McDouall said the holiday parks are doing a terrific job and he sympathises with their situation. But if visitors couldn't freedom camp he didn't believe they would all go to holiday parks.
"What we will not be doing is banning motorhomes and the like from Whanganui. I think that would be a very retrogressive step, and it completely misunderstands who's coming, and the data clearly shows the benefits to the economy."
The council is analysing information from the freedom camping ambassador. It will put up notices alerting freedom campers to local holiday parks, and make sure rubbish is cleaned up.
"We intend to look at the length of time people are staying at any one place, and rubbish, and certainly I don't want to see French or German backpackers hanging their washing out at Virginia Lake, for example," McDouall said.
He's been told some travellers will not come to Whanganui unless there is freedom camping.
"If they are forced into camping grounds they will stay in Waverley and Marton and eat in Waverley and Marton and buy their groceries in Waverley and Marton."