Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Externalities and spillovers in the wilderness

 Those of you who're avid readers of the blog (thank you) will have noted that I'm just been to New Zealand. One of the highlights was the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand's 'Big Nine' walks. It was extraordinary, taking us from beech forest, through waterfalls, alpine lakes and jagged peaks and back down to water temperate valleys again. I loved it.
There has, of course, always got to be at least some wailing and gnashing of teeth - or it wouldn't be Public Policy and the Past. What provided it here was the presence, right next to our rather spartan Department of Conservation Huts, of what could only be described as four star guesthouses. With helicopters to bring in the orange squash. I kid you not. Flushing toilets? Lovely cooked dinners? Sherpas to move your stuff? Tick, tick and tick again. Expensive, of course, at about £600 for three days, but popular enough to prove a great big beacon of how rich, comfortable - and divided - we've become. Take a look at my tourist shot above (all rights reserved, naturally). You wouldn't believe the luxury - right in the middle of some of the remotest places on earth.

I was a bit put out, to be honest. It seemed to me that here was a classic example of what economists call externalities and spillovers - consumption and production choices that have their effects (often deleterious effects) far outside of the decisions to buy and sell. All provided by great big conglomerates who have lots of such interests to manage. What was the 'spillover', I hear you ask? Well, I'd travelled for days and days to uncover the wilderness with some like-minded walkers, and there were a load of showered, camera-toting hotel-dwellers laughing it up in my eyeline. An untouched paradise it wasn't.

Now, there has always been guided walking on these New Zealand tracks - many of them started out as private enterprises, unlike most of the National Parks and suchlike in Europe. They're really busy, and they can take on the feeling of a bit of a motorway even without these A-lister lodges. And there's nothing wrong with getting neophytes out in the countryside, when they might have been afraid to venture out on their own.

But these latest mega-huts? They're ruining the whole spirit of the thing. Or, alternatively, I just might have been jealous without a shower and a nice glass of New Zealand wine to ease my aching back every night. You be the judges.

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