The head of New Zealand’s department of conservation (DOC) has called on Kiwis to show greater respect for their environment amid a boom in domestic tourism that has been accompanied by reports of littering, human waste and wildlife disturbance.

Restrictions on international travel due to Covid-19 have forced New Zealanders to holiday at home, with government data showing some holiday spots are busier than they were before the pandemic despite the absence of tourists from overseas.

With New Zealand’s border closed to nearly all foreign arrivals since April, sites and attractions typically popular with first-time visitors such as Franz Josef Glacier and Milford Sound have recorded a huge decline in visitors, Radio New Zealand reports.

But regions with driving distance of major cities – including Northland, Coromandel and the top of the South Island – have seen high growth as New Zealanders responded to the government’s call to support the struggling tourism industry and “see your own back yard”.

The so-called “Great Walks” were also proving popular over the summer, with the occupancy rates of the DOC-managed huts for hikers’ overnight stays along the trails averaging 83% full.

The top of the South Island was shaping up to be especially busy, with the Abel Tasman coastal track recording more than double the bookings of any other Great Walk, and Tōtaranui proving the country’s most popular campsite. More than 42,000 bednights had been booked from early December to the end of February.

But the DOC director general, Lou Sanson, expressed disappointment that the buoyancy in visitor numbers had been accompanied by reports of littering, human waste and wildlife being disturbed. He said he had hoped that New Zealand holidaymakers would show greater respect for their local environment.

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“Sadly we’re still seeing people doing things that put our unique species at significant risk, such as feeding kea and disturbing seals, dolphins and penguins,” Sanson told RNZ.

His rebuke comes after concerns about the impact of freedom campers this summer. Early this month Whangārei people spoke of issues associated with the 160% increase in freedom campers to the district since 2015, including public nudity and urination.

The tourism minister, Stuart Nash, has said he intends to ban the lease or hiring of vans without toilet facilities to international visitors, in a bid to combat waste.

“If the driver or the passenger wants to go to the toilet – we all know examples of this – they pull over to the road and they shit in our waterways,” he explained on RNZ’s Morning Report programme.

“If you’re willing to pay for a campervan at least you have the ability to dispose of your excrement in a way that meets our sustainability goals and, quite frankly, our brand.”

Once borders reopened New Zealand would “unashamedly” target the super-wealthy from overseas ahead of freedom campers and backpackers, Nash said – prompting complaints that he was over-simplifying at the expense of younger and lower-income visitors.

Freedom camping, and unedifying waste disposal, is also not strictly the purview of foreigners.

This year the government invested $8m in the Responsible Camping Project, which supports councils to offer infrastructure and educational resources for people wanting to camp in their area.

Queenstown Lakes district council has hired eight “freedom camping ambassadors” to inform visitors to the area of the rules and facilities. Craig Gallagher, council spokesman, told RNZ that the uptick in first-time freedom campers from other parts in New Zealand would need to be managed.

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“We know that Kiwis are travelling – people who have never got in tents or camper vans,” he said. “It’s amazing they are getting out and doing that and supporting the local economy. We are just there to educate those people, in the same way we educated the international [travellers] prior.”



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