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by Nancy Swarbrick

Typically New Zealanders take most of their holidays (‘vacations’ in other countries) in the summer month of January. This follows on conveniently from the Christmas and New Year break.

Holidays in New Zealand

In New Zealand the word ‘holiday’ has the same meaning as ‘vacation’ in other countries. It describes a break from work or study, often, but not always, involving a trip away from home.

A small world

While for many people holidays meant travelling away from home, not everyone can afford this. In 2012 a Wellington newspaper revealed that many children and young people from the poorer parts of Lower Hutt and Porirua had not even visited Wellington city, a mere 20 kilometres away, on a family outing.

Holiday entitlements

In 2013 New Zealanders in a full-time paid job were entitled to four weeks’ leave (20 days) annually, in addition to up to 11 public holidays. These were Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, 2 January, Waitangi Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Anzac Day, Queen’s Birthday, Labour Day, and the local provincial holiday. Until 2013 Waitangi Day and Anzac Day were not ‘Mondayised’, so if they fell on a weekend, there was no additional day off. In 2013 a bill was passed Mondayising these holidays in future. From 2022 a ‘Fridayised’ holiday in early winter marked the Māori new year, commonly known as Matariki.

Self-employed people, the retired and those in unpaid work were not covered by holiday legislation, so could take as many or as few holidays as their circumstances permitted.

Holiday seasons

Summer is the main holiday season in New Zealand as it is elsewhere, and many New Zealanders traditionally take or start their summer holiday in the period between Christmas and New Year. For people with school-age children, holidays are often planned to fit in with school terms.

Winter holidays in the mountains or at sunny Australian or Pacific destinations became more popular by the early 2000s.

International comparisons

In 2013 compared with other countries New Zealanders enjoyed a moderate number of holidays, similar to Australia, and more than North America and many Asian countries. However, Kiwis lagged well behind Brazil and European countries such as Germany, France and Spain, where 30 days’ paid annual leave was allowed.

No holiday from housework

When gender roles were more strictly defined the annual family holiday was not much of a break for many women. They still had to cook, do washing and look after children, often in the more primitive conditions of a bach (holiday home) or campground. In the 2000s these tasks were more likely to be shared by other family members.

Work-life balance

The catch cry ‘work-life balance’ emphasises the importance of holidays as a way of relaxing, overcoming stress and spending time with family and friends. However, for many people, particularly families where both parents are in paid employment, organising holidays or fitting in with other people’s holidays can be a source of stress. Since the 1970s some workplaces have provided special programmes of fun activities for children during school holidays, so that both parents can continue to work.

Paid holidays

Statutory holidays

Legislation providing for paid holidays developed slowly. European settlers, arriving from 1840, introduced customary holidays such as Christmas and New Year. People (and often entire towns) would close their businesses or stop work for those days.

The Bank Holidays Act 1873 was the first holidays legislation, ruling that banks should shut on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday and the sovereign’s birthday – statutory public holidays that were added to over the following century. The same year the Employment of Females Act entitled women employees to at least four paid statutory holidays per year. The Factories Act 1891 extended this right to males under the age of 18.

Miners’ holidays

In 1902 coalminers at Blackball on the West Coast negotiated an award under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, including holidays that would have seemed generous at the time: the period 24 December to 4 January exclusive, 17 March, Easter Monday, King’s Birthday, Labour Day and the Blackball sports day and picnic days.

Annual leave

Provision of paid holidays in addition to statutory holidays to groups of workers was piecemeal, depending on their collective bargaining power. Under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 registered unions could negotiate awards which entitled their members to certain numbers of paid holidays. Once the Public Service Association was formed in 1913 public servants received two weeks’ annual leave. But some workers, for example agricultural workers, remained disadvantaged for decades.

Holidays for all

The Annual Holidays Act 1944 granted the right to two weeks’ paid holiday to all employees. This was raised to three weeks in 1974 and four in 2007. Meanwhile some groups of workers negotiated even more days’ annual leave.

Sunshine Jan

By the 1930s January was synonymous with a break from routine, as this poem suggests:

I’m Sunshine Jan,
The vagabond man,
I’m tough and I’m rough
And I wear a tan,
And I don’t care a durn
For collar and tie,
I’m a beach-combin’
Real tough guy.
Wild Jan – that’s me!
I live in the open
And splash in the sea,
I eat my meals from a frying pan
And I wouldn’t exchange
With the richest man.1

Summer holidays

Two statutory holidays in close proximity at the height of summer provided a compelling reason to take a holiday between Christmas and New Year. From the 19th century some New Zealanders began to do this. In the 1860s gold miners customarily took a break at this time: the warden of the Coromandel goldfields granted two weeks’ special protection over claims, which meant that miners could leave them without fear of someone else moving in during their absence.

The school year ended before Christmas, and regional education boards usually decreed a summer holiday for children (and teachers) until late January or early February. In addition, the self-employed and wealthy could often afford to holiday at this time.

As paid annual leave became available to more workers, the tradition of taking a family holiday over Christmas and New Year grew. By the 1920s it was becoming common.

The Christmas close-down

The ‘Christmas close-down’ was institutionalised after the Annual Holidays Act 1944. Many workplaces began to close down completely during this period. According to the Labour Department in 1946, ‘it is recognised that such a practice affords an opportunity for a general clean-up of the premises and an overhaul of the machinery and plant’, and ‘except for the closing for a lengthy period of a number of restaurants and tea-rooms in some of the larger towns, little inconvenience was caused.’2

In the 2000s many government departments and companies continued to close during the Christmas and New Year period, but some businesses stayed open to take advantage of holidaymakers’ custom. People in essential jobs, such as hospital workers, had always been rostered to work during holidays.


Holidays away from home

In the 19th century those who took holidays often did not venture far. For example, Wellington public servant Herbert Spackman and his wife Daisy took their summer holidays at the local seaside suburb of Karaka Bay in February 1899. Time constraints and cost prevented many people from taking holidays far from home. There were also travel difficulties: the rail network was still incomplete, and coach travel along rough roads was slow, uncomfortable and often hair-raising.

Travellers’ tales

Some early holidaymakers who attempted ambitious journeys wrote books about the hardships they encountered. When Albert Allom took a holiday trip to the Waikato region in the early 1870s he complained about the numerous swamps, passable only by fascines (logs laid down to make a road). In one place the logs actually floated under his horse’s hooves.

Car ownership

Attitudes to holidays changed in the 1920s. That decade, motor car ownership escalated and roads improved. This gave people the freedom to travel greater distances and to more isolated beauty spots. By 1927 one in eight families owned a car.

Rail promotions

Recognising the threat to its profitability posed by the car, and faced by declining passenger numbers, the Railways Department set up the New Zealand Railways Publicity Branch (NZRPB) in 1927. It began a series of campaigns to persuade people to travel by rail on family holidays, not just during the usual summer break but in winter, during school holidays, and for day trips and long weekends. The NZRPB created brochures, information booklets and striking posters, and between 1926 and 1940 it published the Railways Magazine to get the message across.

Special deals

From 1927 family concession tickets were introduced, and later a ‘through booking’ service including coach and ferry connections to take the hassle out of organising a long trip. In the 1930s the Railways Department cooperated with local councils and chambers of commerce to promote some holiday destinations, and also had package deals with hotels, such as Brents Hotel in Rotorua and the White Star Hotel in Queenstown. While total numbers of rail passengers declined during the 1920s and 1930s, sales of excursion tickets surged as a result of these campaigns.

Motoring miseries

Excitement, heat and the winding metalled roads that it was necessary to drive along on the way to isolated holiday spots could all contribute to carsickness for the passengers. Many people who went on holiday by car in the 20th century remember the unscheduled stops at the side of the road for children to throw up. This problem diminished as cars became more comfortable and roads smoother.

Post-war holiday boom

In the late 1940s, after wartime petrol and travel restrictions were lifted, the numbers of New Zealanders visiting local holiday resorts increased significantly. Moderately priced package tours during non-peak times, promoted by the Tourist Department, contributed to this trend.

Rail travel peaked in the early 1950s and domestic air travel opened new vistas for some. However, the car was soon the preferred means of travel for family holidays because of the freedom and flexibility that it offered.

Holiday destinations

Seaside resorts

Memories of holidays at English seaside towns probably encouraged many Pākehā New Zealanders to head to a nearby beach during summer. Some coastal towns and cities with railway stations began to promote themselves as holiday destinations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One such place was Timaru. In 1897 the Caroline Bay Association began to develop the beachfront there with a promenade, gardens and recreation grounds reminiscent of English pleasure resorts such as Brighton.

The search for new holiday beaches beyond the cities began. Dunedinites Thomas Hocken and George Fenwick promoted the Catlins district after a trip there in the early 1890s. They noted that ‘for a very long time Broad Bay, Portobello, Brighton and Taieri Mouth were about the only places at all generally visited for a week or two in summer’.1 All were close to Dunedin.

At the bay

Writer Katherine Mansfield grew up in Wellington, and her family regularly took their summer holiday at a cottage across the harbour at Days Bay. One of Mansfield’s most famous short stories, ‘At the bay’ (1921), drew on her vivid memories of these childhood holidays in the early years of the 20th century.

Thermal spas

From the 1880s the government began to develop thermal areas – especially at Rotorua, Te Aroha in Waikato, and Hanmer Springs in Canterbury – as health spas. The main aim was to attract overseas tourists, but New Zealanders seeking a health cure and a break from daily routine also took advantage of these resorts, which had leisure and sports facilities. Improved rail and road links made them accessible to local holidaymakers.

When the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts was established in 1901 spa facilities were further upgraded. They continued to operate, but the heyday of thermal spas had passed by the First World War.

Scenic wonders

In the 1920s and 1930s the New Zealand Railways Publicity Branch began highly successful campaigns that encouraged New Zealanders to see the scenic wonders of their country – not just beaches and thermal areas, but lakes, bush areas and mountains.

The by-then extensive rail network allowed ordinary people to take winter holidays at places once patronised mainly by the wealthy, such as the Chateau Tongariro. Inland destinations such as Waitomo Caves in the King Country and Queenstown in Central Otago were also accessible by rail and steamer.

Getting back to nature

Gradually, more people began to enjoy year-round bush tramping in scenic landscapes such as Fiordland and the West Coast in the South Island and the Tararua and Central Plateau regions in the North. For those prepared to rough it, this type of holiday became increasingly popular from the 1940s. The creation of more national parks in the 1950s supported the trend, and cars enabled people to reach many remote areas.

It’s your local

Most major towns and cities have preferred holiday spots within reasonable travelling distance. For Dunedinites, Central Otago is a favourite. Christchurch people often head to Arthur’s Pass, Banks Peninsula or north Canterbury beaches. Many Wellingtonians holiday on the Kāpiti Coast, in Wairarapa or across Cook Strait in the Marlborough Sounds. Hamiltonians prefer Whangamatā, Waihī Beach or ‘the Mount’ (Mt Maunganui). Aucklanders frequent the Coromandel Peninsula, west coast beaches such as Piha, and Northland resorts.

Distant beaches

Cars also opened up more isolated beaches to holiday traffic. In post-war years, the beach holiday enjoyed its heyday. Some beaches far from major centres of population became favourite destinations.

At the top of the South Island, Tasman Bay and Golden Bay offered the winning combination of abundant sunshine and beautiful beaches. The idyllic Marlborough Sounds offered hundreds of kilometres of fiords and beaches, while on the South Island’s east coast, Kaikōura was famous for its seafood, especially crayfish.

In the North Island, Waimārama in Hawke’s Bay, the picturesque coves of East Cape and surf beaches around Wairoa and Gisborne were magnets for holidaymakers, while further north in the Bay of Plenty, hot spots such as Waihī Beach and Mt Maunganui attracted staggering numbers during January. Coromandel Peninsula, including Whangamatā, Whitianga and many other pristine beaches, was being promoted as a ‘pocket wonderland’ by the early 1970s. In Northland, the Aupōuri Peninsula, including Ninety Mile Beach, and the Bay of Islands promised endless sand, sun and surf.

    • T. M. Hocken and G. Fenwick, A holiday trip to the Catlins District, via Willsher Bay, being a reprint of articles contributed to the Otago Daily Times. Dunedin: Printed by G. R. Smith, Otago Daily Times Office, 1892, p. 1. Back

Holiday accommodation

Hotels and boarding houses

The most common form of accommodation for travellers in the 19th century was the hotel. Ranging from modest to luxurious, hotels usually offered guests a room and washing facilities, a lounge, bar and other recreational spaces. All meals were provided. Boarding houses, a step down from hotels, provided just bedrooms, washing facilities and meals. In the 21st century hotels are the most expensive option, and the majority of guests are overseas tourists.

The family hotel

In a holiday guidebook to Taranaki, published in 1890, local hotels announced their attractions for family groups: the Criterion Hotel in New Plymouth, for example, offered ‘private suites of rooms for families’. Other hotels advertised ‘hot, cold and shower baths’, meals including ‘all the delicacies of the season’, billiard tables, good stabling for horses and sea views.1


At the other end of the spectrum the cheapest form of holiday accommodation was the tent. In the 2000s many people still preferred it for this reason, along with the fact that it was extremely portable by car or even in a tramping pack.

Tents could be erected in the middle of the bush, or in the relative comfort of municipal camping grounds, many of which were established in the 1920s. Camping holidays became more popular that decade, and local manufacture of tents began. In the last decades of the 20th century, tent design became more sophisticated, and lightweight models with windows and several rooms were available, along with more comfortable portable furniture to supplement the standard folding camp bed and primus stove.

The caravan

In the 1950s, once wartime petrol rationing had ended, car ownership boomed and many people purchased caravans that they could tow to scenic camping spots. The caravan, while small, was weatherproof and comfortable, and could be extended with a tent awning to accommodate larger families.


Another 1950s development was the motel, which provided a comfortable home away from home for travellers. As well as giving greater privacy, motels made it possible for families to cook meals and do their own laundry, in more modern and convenient facilities than those provided at motorcamps. Less expensive than hotels, they were a good option for people travelling around the country by car. Some unions and professional groups such as the Public Service Association and New Zealand Educational Institute provided cheap motel-type units at some resorts so members could take a break on a budget.

B&Bs and backpackers

A later development was the bed and breakfast (B&B), usually provided in a private home. This form of accommodation offered cheaper, more homely surroundings than a hotel, but without either its additional services or the self-catering options of the motel. Youth hostels and backpackers establishments, while used by overseas tourists, also provided an economical place to stay for New Zealanders.

Nostalgia for the bach

Jeff Grigor fondly remembered the family bach near the Ōpihi River, South Canterbury, in the 1950s: ‘A bunkroom for us boys, an enclosed porch with a three-quarter bed for my parents, and a kitchen/living room. Water was obtained from a well with a hand pump [and] carried into the house in kerosene tins…The toilet was a long drop dug by hand that was situated as far as possible from the hut. All bathing was done in the river, which was clean and warm. We loved it. As soon as the school holidays commenced, the family packed up and moved to Waipopo for the summer’s duration.’2

The bach

Traditionally the favourite place for New Zealanders to holiday was the bach (known in Otago and Southland as a crib and in South Canterbury as a hut). Often built without a permit, from cheap or salvaged materials, and sited by beaches, rivers or lakes, baches are not, as many think, unique to New Zealand. Similar structures known as ‘weekenders’ were common in Australia.

Often baches were erected on land donated by a sympathetic farmer, Crown land or the Queen’s Chain. Some appeared from the late 19th century, but many date from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They were intended to be very simple, but despite their basic facilities, they had a unique charm for people in the holiday mood.

A disappearing icon

In the 2000s many old-style baches are under threat. The Department of Conservation frowns on baches on sensitive conservation land such as Boulder Bank near Nelson and Rangitoto Island, while local authorities demand upgraded sewerage and drainage facilities for others. In many coastal areas, the land on which baches stand has soared in value, so the old structures are being torn down and replaced by palatial ‘holiday homes’.

    • W. H. Skinner, The Taranaki holiday guide-book, New Plymouth, 1890 [passim], pp.4, 6. Back
    • Jeff Grigor, Baches & cribs : a pictorial journey through New Zealand's favourite holiday places. North Shore City: Penguin, 2008, p. 5. Back

Overseas holidays

Before the Second World War only wealthy New Zealanders travelled overseas for holidays. Regular destinations were England and Europe (places of origin for most Pākehā New Zealanders), the Pacific Islands and Australia.

Trans-Tasman leisure travel was boosted in the 1870s with the introduction of modern Union Steam Ship Company steamships. The fleet was upgraded in the 1890s, and again following the First World War. By 1939 it was possible to make the crossing to or from Australia in three and a half days.

The Union Steam Ship Company also offered winter cruise tours from Sydney and Auckland through the South Pacific Islands from 1877. These were more heavily promoted from the 1890s, but attracted only the most affluent members of New Zealand society. Routes extended in the early 20th century, but Pacific cruising remained an activity for the rich in the interwar period.

Post-war travel

From 1940 new developments in aviation provided a much quicker and more comfortable way of getting to other countries. In 1940 Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL) began a service between Auckland and Sydney, and later between Wellington and Sydney, using flying boats (a type of seaplane). The trip took over 10 hours, but it was still much faster than travelling by ship.

After the war TEAL began flying the famous ‘Coral Route’ from Auckland to Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti, opening up the Pacific to more New Zealanders. 1954 saw conversion to land planes on the trans-Tasman route, and in 1960 they took over the Coral Route as well.

The jet age

The most revolutionary change was the introduction of large jet aircraft on international routes in the 1960s. Faster travel, more airlines and services to choose from and cheaper fares from the 1970s encouraged more New Zealanders to travel overseas. Being able to boast about an overseas holiday became a symbol of success.

The numbers of New Zealanders going overseas for short breaks have increased dramatically in the past 50 years and continue to grow steadily. In 2011 there were 2.1 million short-term departures from New Zealand, compared with fewer than 40,000 in 1959–60.

Most popular destinations

In the early 2000s by far the most trips were taken in the Pacific, with Australia being easily the most popular destination. Possible reasons for this included its closeness to New Zealand and the fact that many New Zealanders had relatives in Australia. Another may have been that resorts in places such as the Gold Coast provide a welcome respite from winter cold. Fiji was the next most desired Pacific holiday location, followed by the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga, while Singapore and Thailand were also favoured.

As many New Zealanders were born in Pacific countries, people visiting family were included amongst the holidaymakers. This was probably also the case with travellers to China, India, Korea, Malaysia, Japan and South Africa, which lured large numbers. Further afield the United Kingdom and the United States attracted the most New Zealand visitors.

Holiday activities

Relaxation, having fun and taking a break from the routines of everyday life are important aspects of holidays for most people.

I see the sea!

Often families have traditions which help to generate a holiday feeling. During the drive over hills towards Waihī Beach, some have a competition to see who in the car can be first to spot a glimpse of blue ocean.

Active pursuits

For many New Zealanders sports are an integral part of a holiday – and for those going on a climbing or cycling holiday, for example, they are the central focus. At the beach activities can include swimming, surfing, waterskiing, windsurfing and boating, or an impromptu game of cricket or rugby on the shore. Other less strenuous pastimes include paddling, beachcombing, fishing and making sandcastles. Essential equipment for family beach holidays includes buckets and spades, boogie boards, Frisbees and beach balls.

Bush walking and tramping are popular in most locations at all times of the year, and winter mountain sports include skiing and snowboarding.


Entertainment has always been provided at the height of the summer season at major beach resorts. Especially since the 1950s this has included beauty contests, sand sculpture contests, treasure hunts and concerts in the ‘Sound Shell’ (an outdoor stage). Dances used to be especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Lavish entertainment is often planned for New Year’s Eve.


Sunbathing on the sands – now frowned on because of the risk of melanoma skin cancer – was considered both healthy and relaxing from the 1930s until the 1970s. It was also often a chance to catch up on light reading. As well as developing a tan, people could show off their bodies to attract the attention of other beachgoers. A holiday romance was an ever-present possibility. Lazing around in a hammock or deckchair continues to be an attractive prospect for many.

Holiday style

Holidaying at Piha in the 1960s, teenagers Sabrina and Pamela Hamilton took well-planned wardrobes, bearing in mind the possibility of meeting boys and going to the Surf Club dance on New Year’s Eve. They made bikinis, Bermuda shorts and tops with dangling bobbles at the midriff – the latest fashion.


In the heat of summer, holidaymakers usually don skimpier, more casual clothes than they would for school or work, but this does not mean they do not care how they look. In the 2000s some items of beachwear, especially togs (swimsuits), are designed to be eye-catching, but most people opt for shorts, T-shirts and hats. Jandals, which first appeared in the 1950s, remain popular holiday footwear, along with sandals and trainers.

Food and drink

Because cooking facilities can be primitive at holiday places, food tends to be simple. Gas or charcoal barbecues have now taken the place of campfires and primus stoves. By the sea, freshly caught fish, shellfish, kina and crayfish may figure on the menu, while those taking holidays beside a river or lake may be lucky enough to dine on trout. Salads, sandwiches, cold cuts of meat and takeaways make life easy, and cold beer and wine feature in many a summer feast.


In New Zealand the early summer weather can be unpredictable, and torrential rain often threatens to spoil a holiday, especially a camping one. A series of bad summers in the early 2000s led to calls by some to shift the traditional January school holiday to February, when the weather was thought to be more settled.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Holidays', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 December 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 Sep 2013