1 Feb 2015

Queenstown bar owners fight regulation

From Insight, 8:12 am on 1 February 2015

Queenstown's bar owners say they are in the best position to manage drinking in the resort; extra regulations are not needed and could even ruin why people go there for holidays.

Insight has been investigating how the town is balancing being a serious party town and the adventure capital of New Zealand, with the danger the drinking culture could turn the resort into a party nightmare.

Two police officers in uniform look on as clients dance at night in bar

Queenstown police survey a downtown bar as they clamp down on alcohol issues in the resort. Photo: RNZ / Steve Wilde

Listen to Insight: Queenstown's Alcohol Fuelled Tourism

As local territorial authorities grapple with the new Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, which came into effect last year, many have rushed to implement local alcohol policies.

The polices can limit how and where alcohol is sold, putting severe restrictions on liquor licences.

But in Queenstown, the local council is taking a step back and instead allowing the bars and night-clubs to prove they are minimising the harm caused by drinking.

The Queenstown Lakes District Mayor, Vanessa van Uden, said her council was taking a wait and see approach.

Bar owners have responded by setting up a bar accord, which is a lobby group of sorts, to not only work together to try and tackle some of the issues around drinking, but to also put pressure on the council not to impose earlier closing times and one way door regimes through a Local Alcohol Policy.

Queenstown Mayor, Vanessa van Uden

Queenstown Mayor, Vanessa van Uden Photo: RNZ / Steve Wilde

But the mayor said she felt no pressure from the powerful bar grouping.

"I don't think they're banding together to put pressure on the council in that way. I think they're genuinely working together to make this work for Queenstown, for the people who like to have a few drinks and to ensure this town remains a dynamic place to come and visit."

Mike Burgess is the owner of the biggest grouping of bars in the town and is also the chairman of the bar accord.

He wanted the accord to address the many issues the industry faced.

"We are primarily looking at alcohol related harm and many of the measures we are putting in place like door staff in high visibility clothing and water stations outside the pubs - along with a publicity campaign to try and educate bar goers is trying to achieve that goal."

Patrons sit outside at a bar in Queenstown

A Queenstown bar. Photo: RNZ / Steve Wilde

Mr Burgess said bars were not afraid of a Local Alcohol Policy.

"Look, we are not scared of a policy - as long as it takes into account the fact that we are working to ensure the aims of the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act are being achieved. This is about harm minimisation.

"If you suddenly want to restrict hours and put in place draconian measures then we are saying, wait and see what we can do first," Mr Burgess said.

But the Southern DHB medical officer of Health, Dr Derek Bell said it was better to start off with a more restrictive sales environment and then relax it later - on merit.

He does not believe bars should be open until 4 o'clock in the morning and preferred earlier closing times.

Female police officer kneels by young man seated on pavement to get more details

A Queenstown police officer takes notes after a late night disturbance. Photo: RNZ / Steve Wilde

"Most of the harm from drinking comes the later the bars are open. Wouldn't it be better to say we will close the bars early and see how that works first?" Dr Bell said.

But Tracy Pool who is the general manager of several downtown Queenstown bars, said Queenstown had already tried that.

"Queenstown has had 24 hour licensing and closing times of 10, 11 and 2am - we've tried it all.

"I think the regime we have at present is the best, with bars allowed to trade until 4am. Not all the bars stay open until that time and the staggered self imposed closing times mean patrons aren't all flooding onto the streets in one go. That's when you get the real problems, which will happen if you mandate that all bars should all close at 2 (am)," Mrs Pool said.

Line up of drinks on bar

Photo: RNZ / Megan Whelan

For the Mayor, Vanessa van Uden, waiting is wise.

At least 25 other local authorities are currently trying to implement Local Alcohol Policies,or LAP,  most of which she said would end up in the High Court.

"That's a costly exercise and if our bar owners, along with the police, and all the other stakeholders can show they can do this without a whole lot of council rules and regulations then that may be worth looking at.

"But I do warn them, we will go for an LAP if our community says this isn't working and we want one, but we are no where near that yet," Ms van Uden said.