Early tourism in New Zealand was encouraged by the development of ocean-going steamships in the mid-19th century, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Alfred’s visit to New Zealand in 1870. The first tourists were wealthy travellers from Britain or the United States who were likely to be making New Zealand part of a six-month grand tour of the world.
In 1882 Thorpe Talbot published the first tourist guidebook to New Zealand, The new guide to the lakes and hot springs; and, A month in hot water.
Tourist appeal and access
From the beginning New Zealand’s international tourist appeal centred on the mountains, forests, lakes and geysers that led it to be called ‘the wonder-country’.1 Highlights were Milford Sound, the Whanganui River and the thermal area of Rotorua – known as ‘the Hot Lakes District’ – where the chance to observe Māori people and culture was an added attraction. In the 20th century spas and lodges in the wilderness were modelled on tourist resorts in North America and Europe.
Rugged terrain made infrastructure and transport expensive, and remote resorts were difficult to staff. Tourism has always been highly vulnerable to war and recession. But the major handicap in developing tourism has been New Zealand’s distance from much of the populated world. The advent of passenger jets diminished its isolation, and by the 2000s tourism was the country’s highest export earner and employed, either directly or indirectly, almost 1 in 10 of the population. In the 2000s the greatest threat to growth in tourism was the cost of fuel.
The earliest record of annual international tourist numbers to New Zealand was 5,233 in 1903. International tourism growth was very slow until it took off in the 1960s. Growth was especially strong during the 1990s and 2000s, and in the year to March 2009 there were 2.4 million international tourists. In the early 2000s tourism’s annual contribution to the economy was $18.6 billion, or 9% of gross domestic product.
The industry has become more complex, providing cultural, adventure and nature activities. There are backpacker hostels, large campervan companies, souvenir stores, restaurants, multinational hotel chains and cruise ships, all servicing different types of tourists − from independent travellers to those on guided coach tours.
In 1903 Australians and Britons made up over 80% of arrivals. By the 2000s Australians were still the largest single group but they were not as dominant, and new source destinations such as Japan, China, South Korea and Europe were important.
While some destinations, such as Queenstown and Wānaka, manage to have both a winter and a summer season, for most of the country the main tourism season is during summer.
In 1892 traveller William McHutcheson compared Fiordland’s scenic beauty to the riches of a gold mine: ‘Sooner or later the heaviest ‘leads’ dwindle to a thread, and the richest ‘wash’ runs out; but Fiordland is an everlasting possession, its scenic attractions a perpetual and ever-increasing mine of wealth to the colony.’2
Until the 1990s New Zealanders maintained a tradition of simple holidays and stayed in baches, caravan parks and the increasing number of motels. In the early 2000s domestic tourists spent around 50 million nights away from home each year but they mainly stayed with friends and family.
New Zealanders travelling in their own country account for almost half of tourist spending ($8.06 billion in the year to December 2008). Although this domestic tourism brings no new funds into the country, it provides a ‘bread-and-butter’ income for businesses, especially in the low season. At the same time, New Zealanders’ enthusiasm for overseas travel diverts many from local holidays. Higher fuel prices and a rise in the cost of living brought a small decline in domestic travel in 2008.