Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Funding tourism infrastructure

Paula Bennett has just announced funding for tourism-related projects in our smaller councils. A typical example is the Hurunui District's proposal to build toilets and a dump station for motorhomes at Culverden for $250k. The government is funding the construction with Hurunui District owning and operating the facility afterwards.

This contribution is certainly not nothing but it isn't totally generous either. There's an old saying that buying a car is the cheapest thing you ever do and that is certainly true of infrastructure like this. Taking advantage of the cash contribution of the government could well end up costing Hurunui ratepayers twice as much over the lifetime of the asset. In present value terms it's about half the lifetime cost of the asset. Not nothing but why isn't the government funding 100% of the lifetime cost?

Once Hurunui District have built their toilets they will immediately incur a whole bunch of operating costs which will have to be funded by ratepayers. Depreciation alone will rack up, say, $5k every year assuming a 50 year lifetime. Cleaning, carting away sewage, general maintenance, insurance, power, supervision etc will add at least another $5k p.a. Over 50 years that's about $500k. The present value of that cash flow is about $200k.

The figures will vary lots between projects but these representative figures indicate the government is contributing just over half the real cost. In practice I would assume that the contribution is less than half because the operational costs of looking after high use facilities is higher than the average for normal assets. There's more damage, more cleaning, more signage, more inspecting.

For a small district like Hurunui all these little costs add up and, while it would be nice to pass on those costs just to those local businesses that benefit from tourism it isn't practical to do so. All the ratepayers will have to share in these costs because there is no way to charge the tourists themselves.

In general I am not a fan of revenue-sharing but this is one situation where it is merited. Dr Eric Crampton recently:
International tourists currently contribute over a billion dollars in GST. If more of the tourists’ contribution to the government’s coffers turned into better facilities in the places tourists go, pressure on those places would ease, making a better experience for locals and tourists alike.
Where does the $1bn go? Good question. The two main contributions the government makes towards tourism is (i) funding Tourism New Zealand ($110m odd) and (ii) funding the Department of Conservation ($465m) The DoC funding benefits tourists and locals alike and covers activities that appeal to tourists and many that have no relevance to tourists. When you strip out the components of the funding that do not directly service international tourism you would be very generous to assume tourists benefit from any more than $300m of the taxes they pay. So maybe $400m all up is used by the government to support international tourism. Which leaves $600m profit per annum for the government to spend on other things. Needless to say private sector operations do not enjoy a 150% contribution toward profit from their expenditure. And small councils get nothing at all from their expenditure.

There is certainly a moral case for the government to hand over more of their tax take to councils to support tourism. It doesn't have to be huge. Bigger centres can handle the current number of tourists without noticeable distortions in their budgets. Auckland and Christchurch especially profit from their ownership stakes in busy international airports. But the smaller councils could do with more help. And that help should be annual operating support not just occasional capital contributions.

There is nothing new in the concept of targeting capital and operating funding to councils. The NZ Transport Agency has been doing it for years for roading. The government just needs to copy the method and apply it to tourism.

Ironically the Minister for Tourism, herself, has articulated the best case for revenue sharing. She recently rejected allowing councils to charge bed taxes on the basis that tourists already pay enough in GST. Fair enough. Now all she has to do is see that our international tourists benefit fully from the taxes they pay by handing over some of it to councils to build and operate better tourist facilities.

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