Milford Sound is one of the most visited sites in New Zealand. // © 2014 Swain Destinations
No human artist gets more than 900 years to work on a masterpiece, which is why likening New Zealand’s Champagne Pool in the North Island to a painting falls flat. Sure, the colors of the geothermal pool are stunning, especially the deep orange subaqueous outline which contrasts with the surrounding light gray silica crust. But the true magic lies in the dynamic interplay of nature and color — the carbon dioxide that emits a cloudy steam from the vast turquoise pool looks a bit like the cloudy sky it reflects. It’s a grand spectacle weakened only by the fact that, a few steps away, something in the earth is causing the water in the nearby pool to turn the color of a lime-green push-up Popsicle.
Polynesian voyagers were also captivated by the natural wonder of New Zealand when they came upon the North Island about 1,000 years ago. According to the most popular story, the presence of a long white cloud tipped off Kupe, a Maori voyager, that he was nearing land. The Maori still refer to New Zealand by this name (Aotearoa). They aren’t the only people to identify the country by its physical attributes. In 1645 — three years after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted the country — Dutch cartographers named it after a region in Holland called Zeeland, which translates to sea-land.
Other names, including Paradise of the Pacific and even God’s Own Country, would come following the rush of immigration after New Zealand was declared a British colony in 1841. Today, New Zealand’s most famous alter ego is Middle-earth, an imagined world that would be impossible to bring to life if not for the country’s actual beauty.
The fantasy of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies may be fiction, but New Zealand is in fact surreal. It’s impossible for a visitor to become desensitized to the country’s dramatic vistas, geothermal areas, submerged glaciated valleys and grottos illuminated by glowworms.
Though one of the last lands to be settled by humans, New Zealand was the first country to establish a national tourism board in 1901. According to Gregg Anderson, general manager of the Americas and Europe for Tourism New Zealand, visitor numbers to New Zealand doubled every decade from 1901 through 2000, largely due to advancements in transportation and aviation.
“The numbers keep getting bigger,” said Anderson. “When we doubled from 1 million visitors in the early 1990s to 2 million after 2000, we realized that tourism was quite a big thing.”
In 2007, the number of American travelers to New Zealand reached its peak with 225,000 visitors. Though there was a decrease in U.S. visitors during the recession, tourism numbers are on the rise once more. Last year, holiday visitors increased 21.3 percent and overall visitors increased 13.4 percent, including 201,000 visitors from the U.S. This is particularly good news for travel agents in the West, as one in four Americans who visit New Zealand are from California. Other major U.S. markets include Colorado and Texas in the West and New York and Florida in the East.
“Two years ago at ITB Berlin it was pretty hard work standing in the South Pacific Hall,” said Anderson. “This year, there were queues to meet with our suppliers. The interest is here again.”
Swain Destinations, a top wholesaler to the country, has also been experiencing a rise in travel agent bookings to New Zealand.
“We saw a 25 percent increase in 2013 and a 28 percent increase for 2014 to date,” said company president Ian Swain.
The Hobbit Effect
“A little thing called ‘The Hobbit’ helped amazingly,” quipped Anderson. “I don’t think travelers have gone to the country in search of hobbits, but the films have reminded people of the New Zealand vacation experience.”
The timing of the films also aligned nicely with pent-up consumer demand to travel following the recession. In December 2012, when the first film of the trilogy came out, New Zealand was in every newspaper.
“The country is really humming right now,” said Anderson. “It has word-of-mouth because of ‘The Hobbit,’ and it’s great to visit while it’s topical.”
In addition to Sir Peter Jackson’s film trilogies, last year’s critically acclaimed and visually stunning television miniseries, “Top of the Lake,” was shot entirely in Glenorchy and Queenstown in the South Island. Even with its mysterious plot and award-winning acting, the show’s locations — such as Lake Wakatipu and the Dart Valley — regularly steal the scene.
Though media might expose consumers to New Zealand, it’s really the country’s tourism product that keeps clients happy — and raving about their experience to family and friends.
“‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ definitely helped put New Zealand on the map for many Americans and did a wonderful job of showcasing the country’s sprawling green hillsides and awe-inspiring vistas, but one of the major driving forces for travel to New Zealand is word of mouth,” said Swain. “Once someone has been to New Zealand, he or she will be the greatest advocate for tourism to the country.”
Along with Tolkien-inspired tourism, the cruise market in New Zealand has significantly expanded in the last five years. According to Anderson, while ships first began to visit the country in 1990, these days they are positioning in the area a lot longer.
“In the past, the ship would come across the Pacific Ocean, go around New Zealand three times and then leave,” said Anderson. “Now ships spend six months to a year in the area.”
Anderson believes this shift was caused by cruise line deployment of their biggest ships in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. This meant they needed to put their other ships in new areas, which was a good fit for New Zealand’s harbors. Another factor working in the country’s favor is its reverse season.
“First and foremost, though, New Zealand is a perfect cruise destination,” said Anderson. “If you think of good cruise destinations, you want one that has lots to do, with ports that are one overnight sail apart. In New Zealand, you cruise between ports overnight and everything is the perfect distance away.”
In addition to bringing travelers to many of New Zealand’s great destinations — including Auckland, Tauranga, Bay of Islands and Fiordland — cruises often feature itineraries that combine New Zealand and Australia, which is a huge draw for tourists.
“More than 50 percent of our visitors like to visit both countries when they go to the South Pacific,” said Anderson. “Cruising works really well with Australia’s Golden Coast, Queensland and Sydney, which has got to be one the most beautiful cities to come into by ship. It’s just like San Francisco: you’d remember sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge.”
While the expansion of the cruise market has made New Zealand accessible to a new consumer group, adventure and luxury travel remain huge sources for tourism.
Due to its unspoiled nature, New Zealand has always attracted adventurous, outdoorsy types. It is the country of origin for activities such as bungee jumping, jet boating and the not-quite-yet-commonplace zorbing, an activity that involves rolling down a hill in a large, transparent hamster-like ball.
And the country’s range of luxury lodges gives high-end clients a rich array of unique experiences from which to choose, including staying on vineyards, golf courses and even working sheep farms.
Swain Destinations regularly works with lodges, including The Spire Hotel Queenstown, Grasmere Lodge, Wharekauhau Lodge and Otahuna Lodge, due to continual positive feedback from customers.
“What makes these properties uniquely luxurious are their on-site vineyards and golf courses, fly-fishing rivers, walking and horse riding trails, superb gardens, working farms and geological sites,” said Swain.
In recent years, private villas and accommodations, such as the secluded Eagles Nest in the Bay of Islands, have also been popular with visitors, partly due to the changing make-up of travelers to the country.
“I’ve been doing this job for 20-plus years, and it’s only in the last few years that we’re talking about New Zealand as a multigenerational or family destination,” said Anderson.
Ena Langford, an American Express Travel Insider for New Zealand and Australia who plans about 50 unique itineraries to New Zealand each year, agreed.
“I’ve seen more students studying abroad in New Zealand and parents taking trips to visit them, followed by vacations with or without the kids,” Langford said. “There are also more multigenerational family trips, such as grandparents and grandchildren traveling together.”
This changing demographic is also associated with growth in soft-adventure activities, including cycling through country trails and visiting Hobbit-related sites.
“Older people are more active now,” said Anderson. “But New Zealand has also developed lots of activities that work really well across ages.”
Travel Agent Focus
Tourism New Zealand has spent the last year speaking directly with retail agents as part of an effort to make it easier for agents to sell New Zealand to their clients. The launch of a new trade website in mid-March 2013 was another component of the tourism board’s effort to support travel agents selling New Zealand.
“The website makes it easier for travel agents to find modules and other tools to help them book clients, including itineraries and photos,” Anderson said.
Tourism New Zealand is also partnering directly with major travel agent marketing groups and consortia including Ensemble, Virtuoso, Travel Planners and Cruise Planners. All agents can participate in Tourism New Zealand’s regular webinar series and in the new and improved 100% Pure New Zealand Specialist program, which launched last year.
Recent training for cruise agents has focused on how to sell pre- and post-cruise trips to New Zealand. Another major target of training has been on helping agents respond to consumer misconceptions about the quality of food and wine in New Zealand, the affordability of visiting the country and the belief that it is only a summer destination. One of the most persistent misconceptions about New Zealand has to do with distance.
“Clients think it’s so far away,” Langford said, “but New Zealand is approximately as far as going to Paris or Rome from the West Coast.”
One reason for the false perception about travel time to New Zealand is that travelers cross the International Dateline. They leave Los Angeles on Day 1 and arrive on Day 3, even though only one night has passed.
Perhaps it’s the disorientation that comes with crossing the International Dateline, or maybe it has something to do with the mystical elements of New Zealand itself — it’s hard to believe that a land of long white clouds and psychedelic waters isn’t another world away.
More About New Zealand
A Quick Guide to the North and South Islands
The North Island is rich with dormant volcanoes, geothermal activity, Maori culture, several wine regions, standout golf courses, huge Kaori forests, black-sand beaches and opportunities for great fishing and swimming with dolphins. Rotorua and Auckland are popular bases.
The South Island is home to the dramatic Southern Alps mountain range, Fiordland (Milford and Doubtful Sounds), Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers), wine regions, hiking trails, bird-watching, many adrenaline-junky activities and great fishing. Queenstown and Christchurch are popular bases.
Air New Zealand flies to Auckland from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver every day.
Swain Destinations’ top five most-booked destinations: Queenstown, High Country South Island, Hawke’s Bay, Rotorua and Glacier Country.
Travel agent Ena Langford’s most requested experiences
Maori culture, wine tasting, hiking/walking any portion of a national park and generally enjoying the nature and beauty that the country has to offer.