Freedom camping has become a divisive issue in recent years with many overseas visitors flocking to New Zealand to take advantage of our previously lax laws and many locals fed up with the lack of regulations.

Concerns over the damage being done to the environment and Queenstown Lakes District’s reputation as a tourist destination has prompted a further review of the Freedom Camping Act.

The Queenstown Lakes District has only around 37,000 full-time residents. However, as anyone who lives in the area can testify, it has become an incredibly popular destination with tourists. On a busy day in peak season, there can be more than 100,000 people in the Queenstown Lakes area. With a significant number of these people choosing to freedom camp, the Council has recognised the importance of protecting the environment from both a visual amenity and waterway perspective, and to alleviate the health and safety risks from human waste.

The Freedom Camping Act 2011 allows freedom camping on any council or conservation land, unless the local council or DOC say otherwise. Any restrictions are usually recorded in regional bylaws. The Freedom Camping Control Bylaw (2012) for QLDC currently prohibits freedom camping in the following areas: Lake Hawea, Wanaka, Arrowtown, Lake Hayes Estate, Quail Rise, Arthurs Point, Queenstown, Jacks Point/Wye Creek, Kingston, Kinloch, Glenorchy, and Makarora.

Public submissions

The 2012 bylaw lapses in December 2019 and QLDC invited public submissions for a new bylaw to regulate and manage freedom camping in the region. The new bylaw is expected to be announced at a meeting in December and will expand the number of prohibited freedom camping areas, to reflect the recent growth in the region, to include: Hanley’s Farm, Shotover Country, Cardrona, Hawea and Northlake. Portions of the Glenorchy Road and Wanaka-Mt Aspiring Road will also be included due to the environmental harm caused by freedom camping.

Most of the public submissions were in favour of stricter controls and regulation of freedom campers.

“The requirements for being self-contained are too lax,” said one submission. “Some vehicles displaying the [self-contained] stickers quite clearly do not have space for a toilet. There is evidence that many who do have toilet facilities choose not to use them making the distinction of "self- contained" or not irrelevant. I would be happy to see further restrictions requiring camper vans to use proper camping grounds or privately-owned areas.”

“Freedom camping is a huge problem in our district and just needs to be better regulated,” said another. “People shouldn’t be allowed to just park up where they want and leave piles of rubbish behind in our beautiful district.”

Another submission from The Queenstown Chamber of Commerce said: “we support the changes to the proposed by-law in advance of the upcoming, possible, introduction of the local visitor levy on accommodation providers. It is important that this levy is applied equitably across all forms of accommodation. Free camping presents an issue with respect to the integrity of levy application and all mechanisms should be used to direct campers to dedicated campgrounds across the region which are capable of charging the visitor levy.”

Campers behaving badly

The increase in the number of freedom campers on the road, and the behaviour of a small minority of the holidaymakers who use them, has had an adverse effect on how locals and tourists alike experience the Queenstown Lakes region. It also risks damaging Queenstown Lakes's and New Zealand’s reputation as a holiday destination.

Over-crowding, risks to public health due to human waste, and potential damage to the environment from people washing dishes, clothes or themselves in the lakes and rivers in the region are just some of the issues causing concern.

The QLDC website states: “we acknowledge that the majority of freedom campers do abide by the rules and treat our district with respect and behave responsibly. They are very welcome and contribute positively to our local economy. It is unfortunate that the minority of freedom campers are ruining it for the rest of the responsible users of our reserves, however, the issue has grown to a stage where immediate action was called for by the community, and Council has moved to act.”

The website also includes a guide to Responsible Camping in the region: “Responsible Campers leave no trace and help keep our communities and natural environment free from pollution and waste!”

Be a Responsible Camper

Responsible Camping in Certified Self-Contained Vehicles only is permitted in Service Hubs in Frankton and Wanaka from November 2019 through to March 2020. To meet the Caravan Self Containment standard, you must be able to live in it for three days without getting more water or dumping waste. It must have: a toilet, freshwater storage, wastewater storage, a rubbish bin with a lid, and a self-containment certificate warrant card MUST be displayed at all times.

This summer, QLDC will introduce a range of initiatives to encourage Responsible Camping including employing Responsible Camping Ambassadors to educate campers, monitor trouble spots and the Service Hubs in Frankton and Wanaka, and assist enforcement officers as required.

The CamperMate app (https://www.campermate.co.nz/) helps campers find dedicated responsible camping sites and service hubs online, and provides useful information on dump stations, refuse stations, DOC campsites and other facilities.

The app also highlights the No Camping zones in the region. No Camping Zones include town centres and residential areas within the Queenstown Lakes District. If vehicles are found camping in a No Camping Zone they are liable for a fine of $200 and an additional $200 if they are clamped.

You can report any illegal camping or poor behaviour to the Council on 03 441 0499 or 03 443 0024. However, bear in mind that fully certified self-contained campers are allowed to camp on the side of the road outside of the signposted "no camping zones".

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