New Zealand throwing open its borders after more than two years -- and there may never be a better time to visit.
Tourism operators have rehired guides, dusted out souvenir shops, and gotten ready to welcome back international visitors beginning May 2, so long as they can produce proof of vaccination and a negative pre-departure test. But they don't expect a rapid return to the old normal, when hordes of foreigners packed the most popular sites and stretched infrastructure to the breaking point.
In fact, the government wants to move away from the mass tourism that trampled New Zealand's pristine landscapes before the pandemic. It's considering charging foreigners to visit unique areas, and wants to entice more high-spending guests who will stay longer and pay for special experiences. The changes under discussion echo those implemented across the Pacific in Hawaii, where tourists pay fees to visit fragile natural sites in an effort to make tourism more sustainable.
For now those issues aren't so pressing. Places like Milford Sound, an otherworldly corner of New Zealand's South Island famed for its rugged beauty, will most likely be devoid of crowds through the upcoming winter season. With its sheer cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and inky fiord, Milford was once dubbed "the eighth wonder of the world" by the writer Rudyard Kipling.
"Pre-COVID, there were close to 900,000 visitors to Milford a year," says Mark Quickfall, owner of Totally Tourism, which operates a range of adventure and sightseeing businesses in the South Island. "We would be lucky to have 20% of that at the moment. Destinations will be under a lot less pressure. Tourists will get a great experience."
There's excitement and relief at the revival of tourism, which prior to the pandemic generated more foreign income for New Zealand than its dairy industry. In 2019 it directly contributed 5.6% to annual gross domestic product and employed 8.1% of the country's workforce.
Still, competition for travelers will be intense. Look no further than Australia, which began opening its borders in February but is yet to experience a significant increase in visitors.
Both Australia and New Zealand rely heavily on Chinese tourists, who are unlikely to be allowed to leave their country until 2023. There is also reluctance to commit to long-haul travel among U.S. tourists, which represent the other significant share of the countries' tourism economies.
Many travelers may also wait until the summer season begins in October.
The Tourism Export Council, which represents inbound operators, forecasts that in the coming year arrivals will be just over half of pre-COVID numbers. By 2025, it predicts 3.2 million annual overseas visitors--a number that would still fall short of the 3.9 million who came in 2019.
"The opening of borders isn't a silver bullet to recovery. There are lots of things that need to come into play, and we anticipate a really slow and steady return to a new normal. It's going to take some time," says Rebecca Ingram, chief executive at Tourism Industry Aotearoa, an industry body that represents operators across the country.
One issue will be airlines reintegrating routes to New Zealand into their schedules. Hawaiian Airlines has announced flights from Honolulu will resume in July, while Air New Zealand has restarted services to the U.S. and plans a nonstop flight (one of the world's longest, at 17 hours, 35 minutes) from New York starting in September. Another hurdle will be rebuilding the local tourism workforce, which has shed some 65,000 employees since 2019--including many migrants who have left the country.
"Tourism won't return to the way it was," Tourism Minister Stuart Nash told a conference in March. "It was unsustainable, and some of our communities were bearing the brunt of its impact."
Small towns and remote destinations frequently suffered the most. The popularity of the Tongariro Crossing--a hike across an active volcanic landscape in the central North Island--proved too much for toilet facilities, resulting in human waste being left beside the track. The sewerage treatment system at the South Island town of Franz Joseph was unable to handle the crowds of visitors to the nearby glacier.
That in turn was undermining the clean, green image New Zealand uses to market itself to the world. Enter the Hawaii-like policy proposals.
"High-value, high-quality visitors give back more than they take," Nash said. "They are environmentally conscious and seek to offset carbon emissions. They are respectful of local communities and cultures."
Adventure operator Quickfall says if there was a silver lining in COVID-19 it was the opportunity to reset. "One of the things we all agree on is that we have no ambition to go back to pre-COVID times when everything was like a stretched rubber band," he says. "If we get back to 70% to 80% of what we were and have the right-sized business, we will be quite happy with that. And deliver a good, quality product."
Your little black book to the "new" New Zealand
Here's a download on the latest places to stay and private experiences to book around the country.
New amid the pandemic are the Carlin hotel in Queenstown and the Park Hyatt in Auckland, both of which command striking waterfront views from balconied suites in their respective destinations. The Carlin is more intimate, with a total capacity of just 50 guests, spread out among mini apartments with as many as four bedrooms. (The largest ones have hot tubs on their private terraces, which face picturesque Queenstown Bay and mountain-backed Lake Wakatipu.) The Park Hyatt, meanwhile, is a more urban option: It sits in the middle of Wynyard Quarter, a revitalized harborfront neighborhood packed with restaurants and green spaces.
Robertson Lodges, long a standard-setter for luxury accommodations that are tucked among New Zealand's most jaw-dropping landscapes, is still a go-to for five-star adventures. Upon reopening, they've added helicopter fly fishing day trips that you can take from either Matakauri Lodge, in Queenstown, or their more-iconic Farm at Cape Kidnappers, nestled on cliffs above the stunning Hawke's Bay coastline. The waters where the choppers touch down have been practically untouched for the last few years, and are teeming with trout.
Don't fancy yourself an angler? Go heli-drinking instead. The distillers at Mt. Fyffe and the adventure operator Altitude both had the same idea when they decided to each kick-start day trips that send groups of four to meet with award-winning gin producers whose operations are outside remote mountain and gold mining towns; it's the type of experience you can have only in New Zealand.
So are Great Walks. These epic trails are a signature way to experience the outdoors, spanning deep limestone gorges and vast valleys. Newly added to the official list is Paparoa Track, traversing some 35 miles along the west coast of the South Island. It cuts through karst formations and ancient forests, with overnight options for both committed walkers and mountain bikers along the way.
Whom to call: South Island-based Jean-Michel Jefferson of travel agency Ahipara is a true New Zealand specialist. He can arrange every last creature comfort for off-the-grid adventurers--or plan more conventional trips that feature the country's best accommodations, chefs and private experiences.