Story: Tourist industry

Page 1. Tourism overview

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Early tourism

Early tourism in New Zealand was encouraged by the development of ocean-going steamships in the mid-19th century, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the visit to New Zealand of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1870. The first tourists were wealthy travellers from Britain and the United States, many of them stopping over during a six-month grand tour of the world.

In 1882 Thorpe Talbot published the first tourist guidebook to New Zealand, The new guide to the lakes and hot springs; and, A month in hot water.

Tourist appeal and access

From the beginning New Zealand’s appeal to international tourists was based on the mountains, forests, lakes and geysers that led it to be called ‘the wonder-country’.1 Highlights were Milford Sound, the Whanganui River and the thermal area of Rotorua – ‘the Hot Lakes District’ – where the chance to observe Māori people and culture was an added attraction. In the 20th century spas and lodges in the wilderness were modelled on tourist resorts in North America and Europe.

Rugged terrain made infrastructure and transport expensive, and remote resorts were difficult to staff. Tourism has always been highly vulnerable to war and recession. But the major handicap in developing tourism has been New Zealand’s distance from much of the populated world. The advent of passenger jets diminished its isolation, and by the 2000s tourism was the country’s highest export earner and employed, directly or indirectly, almost 1 in 10 of the population. In the 2000s the greatest threat to growth in tourism was the cost of fuel.

The industry

The earliest record of annual international tourist numbers to New Zealand was 5,233 in 1903. International tourism growth was very slow before the 1960s. Growth was especially strong from the 1990s. In 2019 there were nearly 3.9 million international tourists and tourism’s annual contribution to the economy was about $25 billion, roughly 10% of gross domestic product.

The industry has become more complex, providing cultural, adventure and nature activities. There are backpacker hostels, large campervan companies, souvenir stores, restaurants, multinational hotel chains and cruise ships, all servicing different types of tourists − from independent travellers to those on guided coach tours.

In 1903 Australians and Britons made up over 80% of arrivals. In the early 21st Australians were still the largest single group but they were not as dominant, and new source destinations such as China, Japan, South Korea and Europe were important.

While some destinations, such as Queenstown and Wānaka, manage to have both a winter and a summer season, for most of the country the main tourism season is during summer.

Fiordland forever


In 1892 traveller William McHutcheson compared Fiordland’s scenic beauty to the riches of a gold mine: ‘Sooner or later the heaviest “leads” dwindle to a thread, and the richest “wash” runs out; but Fiordland is an everlasting possession, its scenic attractions a perpetual and ever-increasing mine of wealth to the colony.’2


Domestic tourism

Until the 1990s New Zealanders maintained a tradition of simple holidays and stayed in baches, caravan parks or (increasingly) motels. In the 2000s domestic tourists spent around 50 million nights away from home each year, but they mainly stayed with friends and family.

New Zealanders travelling in their own country accounted for almost half of tourist spending ($8.06 billion) in 2008, and about one-third a decade later. Although this domestic tourism brings no new funds into the country, it provides a ‘bread-and-butter’ income for businesses, especially in the low season. At the same time, New Zealanders’ enthusiasm for overseas travel (and its relative cheapness) diverts many away from local holidays. 

  1. Thorpe Talbot, The new guide to the lakes and hot springs; and, A month in hot water. Auckland: Wilsons & Horton, 1882, p. vi. Back
  2. Quoted in Philip Temple, ed. Lake, mountain, tree: an anthology of writing on New Zealand nature and landscape. Auckland: Godwit, 1998, p. 104. Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret McClure, 'Tourist industry - Tourism overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Margaret McClure, published 11 Mar 2010