The pros and cons of freedom camping is a conversation that continually rears its head in our communities.

It seems to me that our closed borders has produced winners and losers economically but given us breathing space on the environmental pressures we face.

Kauri dieback would be one example, as is freedom camping.

Are we using this time to think and act differently in preparation for a return of our international visitors? Or are we once again focused on putting out fires?

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An international visitor survey by MBIE found the number of international visitors who did some freedom camping in New Zealand has risen from 54,000 in the year ended 2013 to around 123,000 in 2018, rising by 10,000 visitors since the beginning of the 2000s.

Talking to one east coast Coromandel information centre manager, the experience is that those who freedom camp don't spend. Not even $2 on a walking map: "They think, why would I when I can download it for free on my phone?"

But total estimated spending by visitors who did some freedom camping has risen from $210 million in 2013 to $540 million in 2018 according to MBIE's survey, a similar pattern to that seen for total international visitors.

Germans were nearly three times as likely - 14 per cent of German visitors, or 14,000 per year - to do some freedom camping than any other of the other top visitor markets in 2017 and 2018 followed by the UK with 6 per cent.

Australia contributes the largest number of freedom campers in New Zealand because they're the largest visitor nationality, at 29 per cent — average 33,000 in 2017 and 2018.

When Thames-Coromandel's former chief executive David Hammond left his role, he focused on freedom camping and wrote the best practice guide for Local Government New Zealand, and worked with Nelson City Council on a complete new approach to freedom camping management.

He echoes the findings of MBIE that freedom campers spent, on average, around half as much per day ($99) compared with all visitors ($195) - and a lot is on petrol and consumables that don't necessarily get to communities. The average spend for those who did some freedom camping was $4400 per visitor in 2017 and 2018, as they stayed longer so spent more.

David says if small communities can embrace freedom camping and manage the negative impacts, we stand to gain, since not all tourism can be high-value tourism.

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"We know that local markets really work for [freedom campers] but they're not on every day of the week."

Guided cultural tourism is an untapped market for freedom campers who save up to spend on an activity and seek cultural experiences, he says.

One organisation focusing on the positives is the RSA, which acts as a "park over property" allowing freedom camping to RSA members and those of NZMCA, and have done for many years and continuously in Whangamata since 2005.

Campervan owners at the RSA don't rock up in people movers with a bubble wrapped toilet in the boot, they park their $75,000-plus campervan and buy a meal and support local.

But ratepayers were tiring of seeing others that did arrive in cars at a quiet beachfront spot like Onemana, where the community plan discourages freedom camping, and have facilities funded for their use.

Keith Hay of the Waihi Beach Ratepayers says the reason for the freedom camping law is long gone and it needs a national solution, and not an ambivalent attitude from local government.

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He thinks fellow local Ian Smith's suggestion to allow it in 100km/h areas but not
50km/h or 70km/h is a good idea.

It's time we took the lead on what we can offer our visitors while protecting our special places, and how we can match them with the local businesses that stand to gain from their reappearance on our shores.

Share your views: alison.smith@nzme.co.nz