There’s a reason the sun shines on New Zealand before anywhere else – every new day in Aotearoa is something to cherish! Small, remote and thinly populated, yes, but NZ punches well above its weight with its outlandish scenery, fabulous festivals, superb food and wine, and magical outdoor experiences. Equally impressive is New Zealand’s potent, mainstream Maori culture. This is a country that recognizes and celebrates its indigenous people – the world is a kinder, gentler, more respectful place down here! And while the fanfare surrounding the Lord of the Rings trilogy is waning, visiting the real-life Middle-earth still has a geeky allure - Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson's filmmaking prowess still holds Wellington (aka ‘Wellywood’) in its thrall.
In 2007, around 2.2 million overseas visitors tramped, wheeled, wined and dined across the country, up almost 40% from a relatively meager 1.6 million in 1999. But at what cost? Extra visitors strain the clean, green environment NZ is renowned for, and all this wilderness frenzy is having an impact: the skies above Franz Josef Glacier buzz with droning airplanes, tourists still shampoo in creeks, and locals simply avoid entire chunks of NZ because of the tourist hordes. In response, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has implemented a booking system for its Great Walks - there are nine including the Milford Track, Routeburn Track and Abel Tasman Coast Track - to avoid overcrowding and minimise environmental damage. The NZ tourism industry is embracing all things ‘eco’, while regionally, eateries and farmers markets selling local produce present sustainable options. Regardless, hardcore environmentalists claim the industry and government aren’t moving fast enough. Drought and climate change are fanning the flames...
On the broader arts front, Kiwi live music remains brilliant (dub, hip-hop, reggae and rock), while NZ radio remains abysmal. Culturally, debate rages between anti- and pro-arts lobbies: one side would rather chew their arms off than see another art gallery open; the other sees cultural celebration as the future for both community and tourism. How does NZ forge its cultural identity? What role do the arts play? Do cultural attractions lure the tourists? From our perspective, they most certainly do!
And then of course there’s the national obsession – rugby. After yet another dazzling failure at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, the All Blacks are desperate to redeem themselves on home soil in 2011. The most successful rugby team in history (a 74% winning record!), the beloved All Blacks, were red-hot favourites in 2007, but crumbled under sustained quarter-final pressure from the French. Errors, poor decision-making and appalling umpiring delivered the New Zealanders a 20-18 defeat. The dumbfounded nation wept in the streets and looked around for someone to blame – calls for wholesale sackings were followed by ugly character assassinations in the media. The fragile national psyche took a beating, distraught Kiwis turning to each other and saying, ‘We suck at the only thing we’re good at!’ Until 2011, the team will have to satisfy itself with routine demolitions of Australia and South Africa in the annual Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cups.
Under prime minister Helen Clark's leadership, the government has continued its pacifist, anti-nuclear policy, whilst retaining NZ troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The arts have flourished, unemployment has remained at record lows, and the domestic economy has been buoyant. The flow-on effect of a 2006 minimum wage increase has been a spike in goods and services prices. Travellers have been feeling the pinch – food, accommodation and transport costs have ballooned with demand. This, combined with a stronger Kiwi dollar, means NZ is far from the budget destination it once was.
The national real estate boom continues to mesmerise sellers and infuriate buyers. Rising house prices have stabilized with rising interest rates, but wages have failed to keep up: Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington are among the world’s most expensive cities in terms of housing affordability (relative to income).
Other topics on local tongues include fixed-net fishing endangering dolphins, vexatious treaty settlements, and didymo (aka ‘rock snot’) infestation in rivers and lakes. And don’t get anyone started on petrol prices...
That’s contemporary NZ in a nutshell! You’re in for an awesome trip. Back home on the couch, your memories will drift from rampaging outdoor activities to world-class food, wine and beer (oh, especially the wine and beer), and chilled-out locals. But your most sparkling recollections will come courtesy of NZ’s natural splendour – there are few countries on this lonely planet as diverse, unspoiled and utterly, utterly photogenic.