Rural tourism encompasses farmstays, farm tours, and other tourist activities in a rural setting – from adventures like horse trekking to more sedate pursuits like visits to gardens, museums and heritage sites.
Rural tourism activities:
- are small scale
- are away from crowds
- offer visitors personal attention
- are often traditional in character, connected with local families, and give a sense of continuity with the past
- provide the experience of being close to nature.
Many of these ventures draw heavily on the skills and energy of rural women.
Farm holidays were probably the earliest form of rural tourism. City children were sent to stay with country relatives during school holidays. Later, more formal arrangements developed. In one rural Canterbury town in the 1930s, around 20 farmhouses had regular paying guests. At that time there was an economic depression – farmers needed additional income, and staying on a farm was a low-cost holiday for city dwellers.
A farmer’s wife of the 1930s wistfully summed up the appeal of paying guests: ‘[T]hey appreciate my cooking in a way the family has never done. They don’t get hot buttered scones and fresh eggs and cream in town. It’s lonely when they go. And they don’t give you the least bit of trouble.’ 1
Some farmers provided seperate accommodation – for example, in the 1960s paying guests stayed in refurbished shearers’ quarters at Cecil Peak station, near Lake Wakatipu.
An organisation promoting farm holidays started around 1970, as a way of saving declining rural communities. It eventually had about 300 members, who leased farm cottages to overseas and local visitors. This idea evolved into the farmstay concept, where visitors stay in the farming family’s home.
Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international scheme giving visitors the experience of working on an organic farm, extended to New Zealand in 1974. Accommodation was free, but participants were expected to provide about four hours labour each day. In 2008 there were more than 1,000 WWOOF hosts nationwide.
The Agrodome was established near Rotorua in 1972 by champion shearer Godfrey Bowen and farmer George Harford, to demonstrate farming life to overseas tourists. The Agrodome’s shows featured displays of the best sheep and rams, shearing by black-singleted shearers, and demonstrations of mustering with farm dogs. Farmhouse morning and afternoon teas were provided, and craftwork and woollen garments were on sale. The success of the Agrodome opened the way for other farm displays.
Growth of rural tourism, 1980s onwards
After economic restructuring in the 1980s removed farm subsidies, rural tourism became an attractive option for supplementing farm incomes. In addition, the government tourist department’s budget for overseas marketing was nearly doubled from 1984 as part of a growth strategy.
The tourist department targeted the growing Japanese market, and by 1985 New Zealand had more visitors from Japan than from Britain. Some innovative methods were used to promote agricultural attractions, such as an adopt-a-sheep scheme, where tourists visited a farm to be photographed with ‘their’ sheep and later received garments knitted from its wool.
Farm tours and shows
Companies offering specialised farm tours to groups were set up in the 1980s. In 1988 there were around 1,000 New Zealand farms hosting visitors, and demand was growing.
During 2005/6, almost 11% of international tourists had visited a farm or an orchard, or experienced a farm show while travelling in New Zealand.
Farm walks began when the first privately owned track, Banks Peninsula Walk, was opened in 1989. As well as giving walkers access to beautiful areas of private land, farm walks offer accommodation in authentic farm buildings such as former shearers’ quarters. Many provide catering and transport of luggage between stops, and sometimes mountain bikes can also use the routes. In the early 2000s there were nearly 30 such walks in New Zealand.
Rural tourism had to diversify in the 1990s, because of falling export prices, loss of rural jobs and urban migration. New ventures such as nature tours, horse trekking, wine tours and cafés began.