Story: Economy

Page 5. Tertiary production

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Given New Zealand’s long and difficult island terrain, its thinly spread population and the country’s distance from the rest of the world, transport plays a central role.

Shipping has been important since the first Europeans arrived, with many of the country’s urban centres built around ports. In the early 2000s, a quarter by value of overseas exports by sea was shipped through Tauranga, and a fifth through Auckland. Auckland, however, receives more imports. Wellington and Picton provide important shipping links between the North and South islands. Oil products are distributed by sea where possible.

In 2003, 17% by value of exported goods went out by air. Auckland airport is the second largest port for imports. Virtually all of the more than three million overseas visitors to New Zealand in 2002 arrived by air. They were carried by 17 foreign airlines, as well as by Air New Zealand. Because of the country’s long narrow shape, air travel is a favoured form of domestic travel.

However, the most popular form of travel remains the car. In 2000 there were over three million motor vehicles for four million people. There were more cars per person in New Zealand than in the United States, the United Kingdom or Japan, but fewer than in Germany or Australia. In 2001, 73% of New Zealanders drove to work.

Railways do not play the central role in the transport system that they did in the past. Nevertheless, they remain major haulers of long-distance freight, and there are small commuter networks in Auckland and Wellington.

In the last decades of the 20th century, the transport sector increasingly relied on the market mechanism (supply and demand) rather than on public ownership. Even so, following the privatisation of Air New Zealand and New Zealand Railways in the 1980s and 1990s, the government subsequently purchased back a major shareholding in the airline and renationalised the rail track.


As in other parts of their lives, New Zealanders have been offered choice and technological sophistication in communications since the late 1980s. In radio there is a great range of private stations, including Māori tribal stations, many operating on the FM network, with the government only retaining National Radio, Concert FM, a network for broadcasting Parliament, and the Radio New Zealand international (external link) broadcasts to the nations of the South Pacific.

Television has seen the crown-owned TV1 and TV2 competing with a free-to-air network (TV3) and a whole range of smaller channels transmitted through subscriber television networks such as Sky Network Television’s digital transmission. In 2004 a government-funded Māori television channel began broadcasting.

New Zealanders have also quickly picked up on telecommunications developments, especially cellphones and the internet. Whether in schools, libraries, at work or at home most New Zealanders have regular access to the web. Increasingly bookings and purchases are transacted that way. As email has taken off, stamped mail has become far less a vehicle of personal communication.

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is thriving, and New Zealand is exporting hardware, software and services.

Commercial services

Wholesale and retail trade utilises about 15% of gross domestic product (GDP). Like many other sectors in recent years it has been transformed with a relaxation of shopping hours (they can open for 24 hours a day except for Christmas Day, Good Friday and Anzac Day), the increased use of credit cards, and new presentational formats based on ICT and overseas bulk purchasing. The end of liquor licensing restrictions in 1989 and the growing number of women in employment has resulted in an upwelling of restaurants and bars in city centres, and the growth of fast-food outlets. In the early 2000s a far higher proportion of meals were prepared and consumed outside the home than they were by previous generations.

Other significant commercial services include the provision of banking and insurance, while the education and health sectors sell services to foreign customers, and there is a growing number of New Zealand companies providing services offshore via broadband access.

New Zealand is also developing a significant role in the world biotechnology industry.


Tourism is the world’s largest industry, and with air travel becoming cheaper and effective promotion, New Zealand has captured a share of that market. The country promoted its distinctive Pacific culture, opportunities for adventure and sophisticated recreations, from world-leading museums to groomed ski slopes. It cashed in on events such as the America’s Cup yachting competition and the release of the locally made movie The lord of the rings. The result was that during the 1990s overseas tourist numbers doubled and tourism became the country’s leading earner of foreign exchange. In 2004 there were close to 4,000 establishments offering accommodation, and the restaurant trade has boomed.

How to cite this page:

Brian Easton, 'Economy - Tertiary production', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 September 2023)

Story by Brian Easton, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2016