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Rural tourism

by  Nancy Swarbrick

Adopting a sheep, working on an organic farm, watching a farm dog mustering stock, walking a coastal track or going on a wine trail are just some of the many activities that visitors to rural New Zealand can enjoy. Tourism is often just a sideline income for farmers, but is important to the rural economy.

The development of rural tourism

Rural tourism encompasses farmstays, farm tours, and other tourist activities in a rural setting – from adventures like horse trekking to more sedate pursuits like visits to gardens, museums and heritage sites.

Rural tourism activities:

  • are small scale
  • are away from crowds
  • offer visitors personal attention
  • are often traditional in character, connected with local families, and give a sense of continuity with the past
  • provide the experience of being close to nature.

Many of these ventures draw heavily on the skills and energy of rural women.

Farm holidays

Farm holidays were probably the earliest form of rural tourism. City children were sent to stay with country relatives during school holidays. Later, more formal arrangements developed. In one rural Canterbury town in the 1930s, around 20 farmhouses had regular paying guests. At that time there was an economic depression – farmers needed additional income, and staying on a farm was a low-cost holiday for city dwellers.

Welcome company

A farmer’s wife of the 1930s wistfully summed up the appeal of paying guests: ‘[T]hey appreciate my cooking in a way the family has never done. They don’t get hot buttered scones and fresh eggs and cream in town. It’s lonely when they go. And they don’t give you the least bit of trouble.’ 1

Some farmers provided seperate accommodation – for example, in the 1960s paying guests stayed in refurbished shearers’ quarters at Cecil Peak station, near Lake Wakatipu.

An organisation promoting farm holidays started around 1970, as a way of saving declining rural communities. It eventually had about 300 members, who leased farm cottages to overseas and local visitors. This idea evolved into the farmstay concept, where visitors stay in the farming family’s home.


Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international scheme giving visitors the experience of working on an organic farm, extended to New Zealand in 1974. Accommodation was free, but participants were expected to provide about four hours of labour each day. In 2008 there were more than 1,000 WWOOF hosts nationwide.

The Agrodome

The Agrodome was established near Rotorua in 1972 by champion shearer Godfrey Bowen and farmer George Harford, to demonstrate farming life to overseas tourists. The Agrodome’s shows featured displays of the best sheep and rams, shearing by black-singleted shearers, and demonstrations of mustering with farm dogs. Farmhouse morning and afternoon teas were provided, and craftwork and woollen garments were on sale. The success of the Agrodome opened the way for other farm displays.

Growth of rural tourism, 1980s onwards

After economic restructuring in the 1980s removed farm subsidies, rural tourism became an attractive option for supplementing farm incomes. In addition, the government tourist department’s budget for overseas marketing was nearly doubled from 1984 as part of a growth strategy.

The tourist department targeted the growing Japanese market, and by 1985 New Zealand had more visitors from Japan than from Britain. Some innovative methods were used to promote agricultural attractions, such as an adopt-a-sheep scheme, where tourists visited a farm to be photographed with ‘their’ sheep and later received garments knitted from its wool.

Farm tours and shows

Companies offering specialised farm tours to groups were set up in the 1980s. In 1988 there were around 1,000 New Zealand farms hosting visitors, and demand was growing.

During 2005/6, almost 11% of international tourists had visited a farm or an orchard, or experienced a farm show while travelling in New Zealand.

Farm walks

Farm walks began when the first privately owned track, Banks Peninsula Walk, was opened in 1989. As well as giving walkers access to beautiful areas of private land, farm walks offer accommodation in authentic farm buildings such as former shearers’ quarters. Many provide catering and transport of luggage between stops, and sometimes mountain bikes can also use the routes. In the early 2000s there were nearly 30 such walks in New Zealand.


Rural tourism had to diversify in the 1990s, because of falling export prices, loss of rural jobs and urban migration. New ventures such as nature tours, horse trekking, wine tours and cafés began.

    • H. C. D. Somerset, Littledene: patterns of change. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1974, p. 65 › Back

Rural tourism – a profile

Rural tourists

Ministry of Tourism statistics for 2005/6 show that 53% of tourists visiting orchards and farms were from overseas. Most international visitors were in the 55–64 age group, while domestic visitors were more likely to be aged 25–34.

Main areas for rural tourism

There are approximately equal numbers of rural tourism enterprises in the North and South islands. However, Waikato, Manawatū, Rangitīkei, Whanganui, Canterbury and Otago have more than other regions. Rural tourism is an important contributor to regional economies.

The Amazing Maze ‘n Maize

Beth and Andy Watson have an unusual rural tourism venture – a maze in a maize crop in Manawatū. Each year a different maze pattern is cut into the new crop, and attracts thousands of visitors. ‘Fright nights’, which aim to scare participants with horror props, are especially popular. Reportedly, at least one person wets their pants each night.

Main types of rural tourism


As well as farmstays, this includes camping grounds, backpackers' lodges, farm cottages and retreats.


These cover a broad range, including farm tours and shows, horse riding, fishing and hunting expeditions, mountain biking, four-wheel driving, wildlife tours, and bush or farm walks. A typical four-wheel drive business is Glenstrae Farm 4 Wheeler Adventures, which takes groups on quad bikes or in an eight-wheel vehicle across hill-country farmland along the Kaikōura coast.

Retail businesses

These include craft shops, outlets and farmers’ markets selling produce such as fruit, vegetables and home-made preserves, second-hand stores and souvenir shops. An example is Mill Creek Lavender, near Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula, where visitors can buy lavender products, stroll amongst the lavender plants and enjoy a coffee. Like many rural tourism businesses, Mill Creek Lavender combines more than one activity.

Gardens and nurseries

Garden tours are often combined with plant or food sales. One example is Queenstown Garden Tours, which takes visitors on a tour of three private rural gardens in the Queenstown and Arrowtown areas. The owners escort visitors around their gardens, and afternoon tea is provided.

Heritage activities

These include activities focused on Māori culture, and visits to historic sites. Whangamōmona, a remote North Island settlement, has become a tourist attraction since its historic hotel was restored. The tiny township also attracts visitors on its annual Republic Day on 15 January – a light-hearted commemoration of the town’s declaration of independence after a bureaucratic decision in 1989 took the settlement out of the Taranaki region.

Food and wine attractions

These include cafés and wine trails. Networking between businesses in the same region is often a feature; for example the Hawke’s Bay Food and Wine Tourism Group markets local wineries under the brand ‘Hawke’s Bay Wine Country’, and has developed a food and wine trail, brochures and improved signage.

Incentives and barriers


For many operators, rural tourism is an adjunct to other farm income, and is not particularly profitable. Many go into these businesses without good financial advice, and fail. In addition, many businesses are seasonal, which limits overall income. Summer, the peak season, also coincides with important farm activities such as harvesting and haymaking.


For farmers, the benefits, aside from additional income, include social contact and learning more about other cultures. Some see rural tourism as an opportunity to educate urban dwellers about a different way of life, bridging the gap between town and country.

Bringing the world closer

One organic farmer has described the benefits of hosting WWOOFers: ‘We could not afford to take our children to the world, so we could bring the world to them. We felt this would keep the children open-minded to other nationalities and they could learn ideas and attitudes of people coming from other countries.’ 1

Issues for Māori operators

A significant number of rural tourism businesses are Māori-owned and operated. Ownership is often joint, through a trust or incorporation. These businesses offer tourists unique experiences such as visits to remote areas and access to authentic cultural activities. Benefits for Māori in developing such ventures include:

  • employment for young people
  • training opportunities
  • improvements to marae facilities and land
  • promotion of culture and language.

Māori operators may find that running a tourist business can conflict with cultural beliefs. For example, they may have difficulties with selling hospitality rather than giving it, or strike problems when a marae used for tourist visits is needed for a tangi (funeral) or hui (meeting). They may also need to control access to sacred battle or burial sites, or decide how much they can talk about sensitive aspects of tribal history.

Rural tourism agencies

In the late 1990s rural tourism conferences were held and there was a Rural Tourism Council, affiliated with the Tourism Industry Association. In the 2000s one of the main rural tourism organisations was the New Zealand Association of Farm and Home Hosts, founded in 1987. It is for providers of farmstay and bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and runs an annual conference. Members must meet standards set by the association.

Local tourism organisations and regional councils are involved in developing rural tourism. Problems these agencies work to overcome include:

  • limited promotion for rural tourism
  • poor roads and lack of public toilets
  • difficulties maintaining established facilities
  • government regulations that make it costly and complex to set up businesses, for instance liquor licensing and health and safety rules.
  1. Alison McIntosh and Tamara Campbell, ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF): a neglected aspect of farm tourism in New Zealand.’ Journal of Sustainable Tourism 9, no. 2 (2001), p. 120 › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Rural tourism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Nov 2008