New Zealand

More than two years after shutting its borders to the world, Aotearoa (New Zealand) is finally welcoming Brits back with bucket list experiences and an enhanced Māori culture programme, says Jessica Pook

Waking up with the ceiling inches from my face is a small price to pay for the freedom that comes with a road trip around New Zealand’s South Island – nevertheless it’s not a pleasant experience. 

Before the claustrophobia hits I quickly swing myself out of bed and head straight for the back of my compact Juicy campervan, letting the rear door swing open and the fresh air fill my lungs. 

No luxury hotel can match this view. Snow-capped mountains and hills the same shade as my lime-green wagon stand out against a hazy pink morning sky, and just a few feet away a lake stretches far into the distance. I watch the morning mist hover over the dark water and shiver, reliving the shock of plunging into the same water a day earlier. But the best thing about this little haven is that it’s one of over 500 free responsible freedom camping locations across New Zealand. 

A few days earlier I’d stopped in Kaikoura, in the north of the South Island, where I swapped my wheels for a boat and spent a day out at sea with Whale Watch Kaikoura, owned and operated by the indigenous Ngati Kuri people of Kaikōura, a Māori sub-tribe of the South Island’s larger Ngai Tahu Tribe. As I listened intently to tales of Paikea, who escaped his brother’s betrayal and near death by riding a whale from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand, I almost forgot why we were there!

We were lucky enough to see the most spectacular tail slap of a sperm whale, but it is the legend of the whale rider that will remain with me.  

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A warm welcome back 

New Zealand’s successful COVID-19 strategy means the country continues to have one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world. 

More than two years after closing its borders, New Zealand welcomed back international visitors on May 1 – to heart-warming scenes at the country’s airports.

At the time of writing, qualifying travellers no longer need to isolate on arrival, on provision of a negative pre-departure test. A negative Rapid Antigen Test is then required on arrival and on day five or six. New Zealand’s traveller health declaration form ‘Nau Mai Ra’, is also mandatory for all arrivals.

“We are thrilled to welcome manuhiri (visitors), family and friends back,” says René de Monchy, Chief Executive, Tourism New Zealand.

“New Zealand has plenty to offer international visitors, from breathtaking landscapes, rare and remarkable wildlife to our rich culture and heritage; our people and place are what make us unique, and we look forward to sharing this with the world again.”

Sarah Handley, General Manager of Americas and Europe at Tourism New Zealand, agrees, and says: “New Zealand will always be the ultimate bucket list destination for many, due to the diversity of the cinematic landscapes and the ease with which you can combine golden beaches and cool cities with misty fjords and otherworldly glaciers.”

Operator Explore has seen fresh demand for its newly-added 19-day New Zealand Explorer tour and the 19-day Walking in New Zealand tour. 

“Our New Zealand bookings are already back to pretty healthy numbers; in fact we are on par with where we were at this stage in 2019 for forward bookings,” said a spokesperson for Explore. 

“Around 75% of our bookings for New Zealand came in March and April, after the country announced its reopening.”

Strict Covid protocols have been implemented: Qualmark, TNZ’s official quality assurance organisation, has developed an assessment to ensure that COVID-19 cleaning protocols and procedures are met by tourism operators. Visitors can look for the COVID Clean approved logo.

Meanwhile, Tourism New Zealand has refocused its tourism strategy and is highlighting experiences that benefit both the land and its people. 

Visitors are encouraged to make the Tiaki Promise, a pledge to care for the country alongside Kiwis, and learn about the deep-rooted Māori culture, which dates back to the early 1300s.

“Māori culture, values, and history are a significant part of New Zealand, and visitors who immerse themselves in our local identity will enjoy a deeper understanding of the country,” says Handley. 

“Values such as manaakitanga (hospitality or respect/kindness) and kaitiakitianga (guardianship of the land) are an important part of the Māori worldview.”

An influx of Māori cultural experiences have opened, including the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, the world’s first gallery dedicated to contemporary Māori art.

Handley expresses that many operators have used the time without international visitors to strengthen sustainability credentials resulting in innovative new tours like the Nelson-Tasman Zero Carbon itinerary.

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 Māori experiences

Story time:Northland is known as ‘the birthplace of New Zealand’ and offers some of the best cultural experiences. Manea Footprints of Kupe explores Māori history and the legend of Kupe, the great navigator. Visitors are taken on a 75-minute multi-sensory journey of guided storytelling.

Take on the All Blacks: In Auckland, a new interactive All Blacks Experience is designed to make visitors feel part of one of the most famous sports teams in the world. The experience includes a 45-minute guided tour, teaching the story behind the spine-tingling All Blacks haka. This is followed by a show of skills against the rugby team.

Paddle with a purpose: A waka (Māori canoe) was used to sail the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years and is part of the heritage of the Māori people. The Waka Abel Tasman experience begins with a blessing for protection and learning waka etiquette before paddling the Abel Tasman coast to Toka Ngawhā, Split Apple Rock. 

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What’s new

Hotels: The newly-opened Hotel Britomart in Auckland is a five-star boutique hotel and New Zealand’s first five Green Star hotel. It has 99 guest rooms and views over Waitemata Harbour.

Due to open in June 2022 is the Mayfair Hotel, the newest property in Christchurch. It will have 67 guestrooms.

The first Radisson Collection Hotel has opened in Queenstown. It feature 61 guestrooms, a restaurant and a day spa. 

The newest addition to the PurePod lineup, Kokomea PurePod is a luxurious eco-friendly glass pod with views of Kāpiti Island.

The newly-opened Nest Tree Houses in Hakataramea Valley features architecturally designed tree houses.

Cruise: Heritage Expeditions offers three new cruises, departing between November 2022 and March 2023. They are: New Zealand Coastal Odyssey, The Best of New Zealand and Exploring New Zealand’s Remote Backyard.

Tour operator: Intrepid has added its first Premium trips to New Zealand which are described as “higher end adventures without compromising on sustainability”.

Scenic has added longer escorted land trips such as the 19-day Royal New Zealand and 27-day Ultimate New Zealand. 

Where to book it

Intrepid offers a new 10-day Premium New Zealand South Island tour from Christchurch to Queenstown. It includes an overnight cruise on Milford Sound and is priced from £2,570pp.