Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Visitors’ opinions about New Zealand

by Jock Phillips

‘So … what do you think of New Zealand?’ New Zealanders have often been sensitive about the views of overseas visitors, with criticisms by the Rolling Stones, John Cleese and Paul Theroux making scandalised headlines. Other comments have been more positive, extolling the virtues of the landscape, the culture and social reforms.

Early visitors, 1769–1860

Importance of visitors’ views

Living in a small country far from the centres of Western civilisation, New Zealanders have always been highly sensitive about the views of visitors from larger societies on their land and society. English commentator Austin Mitchell noted that a visiting Pom (Englishman) would be ‘asked a thousand times how you like the country; two thousand times if you’ve already left the airport tarmac’.1

Word from on high

In the late 19th century, Canterbury politician Edward Wakefield observed that ‘when any famous writer undertakes to give the world an account of the colonies from his own observation, all good colonists await the publication of his book with feverish impatience, and when it appears each of them takes praise, or blame as personal to himself, and is elated or depressed in proportion as his colony is represented in a favorable or unfavorable light.’2

The views of visitors from overseas have been important in defining national identity for New Zealanders.

European explorers and the land

The first European visitors, the explorers, were interested in the long-term value of the new land for their own societies, so they focused on two issues:

  • the resource potential of the land
  • the nature of the indigenous inhabitants.

Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his crew never landed on New Zealand soil, but Tasman did conclude that it was a fine, if mountainous, country when he sailed along the west coast in 1642–43.

On his three voyages to New Zealand, British navigator James Cook and his men developed more informed views. At first sight, Cook considered the land infertile, and dubbed the area ‘Poverty Bay’. However, this view was quickly revised. On seeing Māori gardens at Anaura and Tolaga bays on the East Coast, Cook’s companions realised that the land was highly productive. The artist Sydney Parkinson wrote that with cultivation, the country might become ‘a kind of second Paradise’.3

Cook himself concluded that while the South Island appeared mountainous and barren, the North Island contained lofty stout timber trees, and the valleys appeared rich and fertile. The seas had many fish that made good eating. There were no wild beasts, although seals and whales were noted, and Cook suggested that flax might be used to make rope. He concluded that ‘was this Country settled by an Industrus people they would very soon be supply'd not only with the necessarys but many of the luxuries of life.’4 Joseph Banks commented on the melodious birdsong.

French explorers confirmed these judgements. On Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne’s voyage in the early 1770s, Julien Crozet emphasised the absence of wild animals and the abundance of fish.

Explorers and Māori

Abel Tasman’s bloody confrontation with the Māori of Mohua (Golden Bay) established a view that Māori were an aggressive people, and the French explorers largely supported this notion. Pottier L’Horme, on Jean François Marie de Surville’s expedition, regarded Māori as a lazy, treacherous and thieving people who practised cannibalism, and such judgements were endorsed by the survivors of Marion du Fresne’s expedition. Crozet described Māori as the greatest traitors on earth.

Cook took a different view. While accepting that Māori were warlike and practised cannibalism, he also described them as strong, with fine skills in fishing, crafts and agriculture. He considered them generally friendly to visitors.

Itinerants, missionaries and promoters

In the early 19th century, the views of travellers reflected their purpose in visiting the new land. John Boultbee, for example, came as a sealer to southern coasts. His impressions were of tough physical conditions and a wild community of ex-convicts.

Itinerant English artist Augustus Earle came partly because he had met Māori in Sydney and wished to learn more. He painted a picture of them as a good-looking people, a ‘splendid race of men’5, who blended ferocity with humanity. Like many later visitors, he contrasted Māori with Australian Aborigines – and with European missionaries, whom he saw as inept hypocrites.

Those who visited as missionaries had different views. Both William Yate (1835) and William Wade (1842) praised their fellow missionaries and found Māori stupid and lazy. Charles Darwin, who called in at the Bay of Islands on the voyage of the Beagle in 1835, shared such judgements. He found the landscape unattractive, the Māori immoral cannibals and the missionary community at Te Waimate the ‘one bright spot’ in the land.6

Promoters, such as the New Zealand Company men Charles Heaphy, Edward Jerningham Wakefield and Ernst Dieffenbach, presented a more positive view. Dieffenbach was depressed about the exhaustion of resources such as whales and flax, and was sympathetic to Māori. 

Early judgements said as much about the motives and concerns of the visitors as the reality they experienced.


The ‘Britain of the South’, 1860–1900

Tourism begins

Tourist visits increased after 1865 because of:

  • the peace that followed the New Zealand wars
  • the development of faster, more comfortable steamships in the 1870s and 1880s
  • the emergence of travel agencies such as Thomas Cook & Son, and travel guides to New Zealand
  • the improvement of domestic facilities such as roads, trains and hotels.

Many visitors called as part of a world trip, while others were attracted by the growing international reputation of the Pink and White Terraces near Lake Rotomahana. Some who penned their impressions were tourists who could write. Others were famous writers who visited and sometimes gave lectures, including Anthony Trollope, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Sir Charles Dilke and James Froude. Froude’s Oceana was the most widely-read traveller’s account. Most visitors were British, although Germans and Americans also came.

The landscape

Since the travellers followed a standard route – the ‘hot lakes’ of Rotorua, the cold lakes of Queenstown, and, from the 1890s, the Whanganui River and the fiords – judgements about the land were often similar. Most were enthusiastic about the scenery. Dilke regarded the glacier landscapes of the West Coast the most beautiful in the world. Froude wrote that ‘the dullest intellect quickens into awe and reverence amidst volcanoes and boiling springs and the mighty forces of nature.’1 Writers went into rhetorical ecstasy in describing the White Terrace, often called the eighth wonder of the world.


The most common judgement about the society was its Englishness, ‘a fac-simili,’ as Lord Lyttelton wrote, ‘though on a small scale, of England.’2 For some enthusiasts of the British Empire, such as Dilke, Englishness was what they had come to find. Dilke found it everywhere, but especially in Christchurch, where he was pleased to see imported English rooks cawing in the elm trees of the cathedral close.

No escaping England

Anthony Trollope saw New Zealand as ‘unmistakably English’, but believed this a disadvantage: ‘The great drawback to New Zealand … comes from the feeling that after crossing the world and journeying over so many thousand miles, you have not at all succeeded in getting away from England.’ When Trollope reached Invercargill, ‘I felt exactly as I might have felt on getting out of a railway in some small English town, and by the time I had reached the inn, and gone through the customary battle as to bedrooms, a tub of cold water, and supper, all the feeling of mystery was gone.’3

The Scottish singer David Kennedy not unexpectedly discovered Scottishness, especially in Dunedin. Even non-British visitors noted the English character of the colony. American writer Mark Twain noted, ‘It was Junior England all the way to Christchurch’,4 and several German visitors such as Ferdinand Hochstetter and Baron Alexander von Hübner agreed.

Britain of the South – a glorious future

The Englishness of New Zealand was one reason many visitors promised the country a glittering future. Believing that the superiority of the English race derived from a vigorous life in a cold island (Britain), they saw New Zealand as replicating these conditions. James Froude anticipated ‘a splendid race of Southern English’5 – with great poets, artists, statesmen and soldiers.

Visitors praised the progress colonists had made in the new land. Cities had acquired ‘the best fruits of the civilisation’, and in the country ‘the wilderness had become a garden,’6 said Trollope. The German von Hübner agreed.

Lack of classes

Some noted the relative absence of class hierarchies. Kennedy commented that there was ‘more of an equality between master and man’7 and Froude that the country was ‘the workman’s paradise’.8 Trollope noted the absence of tipping and the well-paid servants. He also claimed that colonials were well-read – ‘Carlyle, Macaulay and Dickens’ were better-known than at home.9


Most visitors had some criticism of Māori. Those who went to Rotorua were annoyed at the alleged drunkenness and financial greed of Māori. Some believed the modern Māori was degraded and would eventually disappear. Yet Māori were also praised for their hospitality and intelligence, and many visitors shared Twain’s view that they were ‘a superior breed of savages’,10 more impressive than Australian Aborigines or Native Americans. Dilke noted that Māori had more rights than other native peoples elsewhere, but believed this was a tribute to their ‘nobility of mind’11 and effectiveness as warriors.

Best in the world

German visitor Alexander von Hübner commented on the enthusiasm of New Zealand locals: ‘They compare Auckland with Naples, Nice, Genoa, and Constantinople, and Auckland surpasses all … If the talk turns on the products of nature or industry, the picturesque charms, the climate, the men and things of the country, the refrain is always the same – they are the best in the world. In the face of such exaggerations one is not allowed to maintain a polite silence; one must gush in echo of his New Zealand friends. It is a weakness, an infirmity of children, which is only met with in new countries.’12


The travellers did have a few criticisms – several noted the extent of drinking and particularly the custom of ‘shouting’ (buying drinks for others); there was a general view that before the abolition of the provinces New Zealand was over-governed, and also over-burdened with debt; and some travellers noted the primitive nature of the facilities and the poor food. In Irish writer Beatrice Grimshaw’s words, New Zealand was ‘not yet fully opened up.’13 The Germans noted the over-sanctification of Sundays.

But quibbles were few and the travellers’ enthusiasm must have reinforced New Zealanders’ sense of identity and local pride.

Little wonder, then, that the travellers’ most interesting criticism was that New Zealanders suffered from an overweening patriotism. They were excessively keen on blowing their own trumpets, and as Trollope noted, if the New Zealander ‘would blow his own trumpet somewhat less loudly, the music would gain in its effect upon the world at large’.14

  1. James Anthony Froude, Oceana, or, England and her colonies. London: Longmans, Green, 1886, p. 206. Back
  2. Quoted in Lydia Wevers, Country of writing: travel writing and New Zealand, 1809–1900. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002, p. 135. Back
  3. Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand. Melbourne: George Robertson, 1873, p. 549, 540. Back
  4. Mark Twain, Mark Twain in Australia and New Zealand. Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1973, p. 297. Back
  5. Oceana, p. 227. Back
  6. Australia and New Zealand, pp. 556, 653. Back
  7. David Kennedy Junior, Kennedy’s colonial travel: a narrative of a four years’ tour through Australia, New Zealand, Canada, &c. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Publishing Co., 1876, p. 165. Back
  8. Oceana, p. 209. Back
  9. Australia and New Zealand, p. 552. Back
  10. Mark Twain in Australia and New Zealand, p. 318. Back
  11. Charles Wentworth Dilke, Greater Britain: a record of travel in English-speaking countries during 1866 and 1867. 8th ed. London: Macmillan, 1885, p. 271. Back
  12. Quoted in Oliver Harrison, ‘The paradise of the southern hemisphere’: German and Austrian visitors to New Zealand, 1876–1889. Auckland: Research Centre for Germanic Connections with New Zealand and the Pacific, University of Auckland, 2008, p. 121. Back
  13. Quoted in Lydia Wevers, ed., Travelling to New Zealand: an Oxford anthology. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.196. Back
  14. Australia and New Zealand, p. 632. Back

‘Social laboratory of the world’, 1890–1920

Liberal reforms

The formation of the Liberal Party government in 1891 began a period of social democratic reform which attracted the interest of progressives in the western world. Some visited specifically to report on the measures. Their judgements were influenced by concerns from their homelands. The most important of these visitors were:

  • Henry Demarest Lloyd from the United States
  • Albert Métin and André Siegfried from France
  • Sidney and Beatrice Webb from England.

Least bad

Henry Demarest Lloyd concluded: ‘The tactful portrait painter would not say that the New Zealanders were the most civilised, the most happy, the most prosperous people in the world, but they certainly are the least uncivilised, the least unhappy, the least disinherited … and for New Zealand it may be claimed that its government and people are the “least bad” this side of Mars.’1

Henry Demarest Lloyd

Lloyd was a Chicago journalist, involved in campaigns against monopolies and associated with populist and progressive social movements. He visited New Zealand in 1899, and wrote two books about what he had discovered: A country without strikes, which focused on conciliation and arbitration, and Newest England, a broader survey.

Lloyd shared many views of earlier travellers – he praised the scenery and the advanced state of Māori – but the political measures were his focus. He was impressed by publicly owned railways and the government’s acquisition of large landholdings in order to divide them into smaller farms. Influenced by the American reformer Henry George and his ideas of a single tax, Lloyd praised progressive land taxes. Aware of the devastation caused by industrial conflict, he was enthusiastic about the New Zealand system of conciliation and arbitration, and the legislation over hours of work and factory conditions.

He praised old-age pensions, the Public Trustee (a state-supported trust set up to protect the assets of vulnerable people), Government Life (a government-owned life insurance provider), and financial advances to settlers – which he saw, in populist terms, as smashing a ‘money ring’. In sum the ‘New Zealand revolution’, as Lloyd dubbed it, was a model for the world. Under his influence other reformers such as Frank Parsons set about ‘New Zealandising’ the United States.

The whole world’s watching

André Siegfried believed New Zealanders had an overwhelming sense of their own importance to the world. ‘Many New Zealanders are honestly convinced that the attention of the whole world is concentrated upon them, waiting with curiosity and even with anxiety to see what they will say and do next … they have been so accustomed to being taken seriously that they have become conscious of a mission to humanity … Like provincial celebrities who, coming to Paris, feel that everyone is looking at them, the New Zealanders, in their distant isolation, think that they fill a great place in the world.’2

Métin and Siegfried

Albert Métin and André Siegfried were young French academics. Métin won a scholarship to study social and labour legislation in Australasia. He visited in 1899 and his book surveyed progressive legislation, especially labour laws, in both Australia and New Zealand. Siegfried, who also wrote books about Canada, the US and Britain, visited in 1904 and wrote a comprehensive outline of New Zealand and its reforms.

Coming from a French political world where class conflict and socialist debates were current, both men suggested that New Zealand reforms were pragmatic solutions, devoid of theoretical input. Métin called his book Socialism without doctrine, and Siegfried considered New Zealand politicians men of action with a contempt for ideas. Both noted the absence of classes and praised the labour laws.

Siegfried thought New Zealand was very English and that New Zealanders worshipped England, which they ‘endowed with a halo of romance’.3 He also noted the strict observance of the Sabbath.

The Webbs

Sidney and Beatrice Webb were Fabian socialists who visited New Zealand in 1898 and recorded their views in a diary. Like the other socialist visitors, the Webbs were impressed by the reforms and particularly praised the industrial arbitration system. They also approved of the ‘independent’ manner of the working class and the fact that there were neither millionaires nor slums. They found New Zealand in general ‘delightfully British’,4 but as well-educated people they thought the country lacked intellectual life. They bemoaned the absence of public libraries and thought that (despite his undoubted political achievements) Premier Richard Seddon was gross, uneducated and rough.


The impact of such visitors was to confirm in the minds of New Zealanders that their country was the ‘social laboratory of the world’.

    • Henry Demarest Lloyd, Newest England: notes of a democratic traveller in New Zealand, with some Australian comparisons. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1900, p. 11. Back
    • André Siegfried, Democracy in New Zealand. London: Bell, 1914, pp. 58–59. Back
    • Democracy in New Zealand, p. 359. Back
    • Beatrice Webb, Visit to New Zealand in 1898: Beatrice Webb’s diary with entries by Sidney Webb. Wellington: Price, Milburn, by permission of the Passfield Trust, 1959, p. 1. Back

20th- and 21st-century travellers

Famous visitors

At least until the advent of jet travel in the mid-1960s, the arrival of famous people in New Zealand led to considerable media coverage and the inevitable question from an insecure nation, ‘What do you think of New Zealand?’. When Irish author George Bernard Shaw visited in 1934, a book of his comments to the New Zealand press appeared just six days after he left.

Some visitors came with a particular focus – American author and angler Zane Grey wrote extensively about his deep-sea fishing exploits, and US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was interested in the role of women. Many rehashed old judgements – in 1925 author A. P. Herbert thought New Zealand more English than England. Four years earlier Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle praised the country’s treatment of Māori.

Comparing smells

The American historian Robin Winks wrote in 1954: ‘In America it is the accepted thing for men to use some such preparation as a deodorant, a cologne, a shave lotion, and an after-shave powder. This is, of course, regarded as effeminate in New Zealand. It seems to be more common to smell of hair oil, tobacco, and well scrubbedness.’1

New criticisms

Criticisms emerged and became more pronounced from the 1950s. There was widespread disappointment at the quality of New Zealand food, and some disgust at the level of public drunkenness. British author Eric Linklater in 1951 suggested that his meal of cooked mutton ‘appeared to have been killed by a bomb, and the fragments of its carcass incinerated in the resulting fire.’2 American writer Sydney Greenbie thought that ‘there is one cook from Auckland to Invercargill, and his name is Monotony’.3 Some visitors, especially Americans, considered that New Zealanders dressed atrociously.

A conservative people

More challenging were those visitors who, attracted to New Zealand by its reputation as a reforming social laboratory, found it politically and socially conservative. As early as 1914 English poet Rupert Brooke had noted that New Zealand had implemented a full Fabian programme yet had the same troubles as elsewhere. By 1951 American novelist James Michener decided that the (Pākehā) New Zealander was the most conservative white man in the world.

Suburbia of the southern seas

In 1953 the British broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas wrote a poem, ‘Farewell to New Zealand’, which attacked the country’s conservatism:

Saved by the wowsers from the Devil’s Tricks,
Your shops, your pubs, your minds all close at six.
Your battle-cry’s a deep, contented snore,
You voted Labour, then you worked no more.
The Wharfies Heaven, the gourmet’s Purgat’ry:
Ice-cream on mutton, swilled around in tea!
A Maori fisherman, the legends say,
Dredged up New Zealand in a single day.
I’ve seen the catch, and here’s my parting crack –
It’s undersized; for God’s sake throw it back!4

Many saw New Zealand as a quiet suburban society characterised, in English playwright Noël Coward’s words, by ‘aggressive Puritanism’.5 Some, such as Sarah Mussen in the 1960s, thought it ‘incredibly dull’.6 The Beatles toured in the same period and thought New Zealand fans were much quieter than the wild Australians, while the Rolling Stones described Invercargill as ‘the arsehole of the world’.7 As late as the 1990s American travel writer Paul Theroux was caustic in his criticism of Christchurch as ‘prim and moribund’, with ‘frightful bungalows and dusty hedges and twitching curtains’.8


The most serious criticism came from an American Fulbright scholar, David Ausubel, who spent a year in New Zealand in 1957–58 and whose book The fern and the tiki was a wholehearted attack on the New Zealand character and social values. Ausubel believed that despite their welfare state, New Zealanders were not altruistic or reforming. They were unfriendly, punitive and authoritarian. Smug in their belief that their society was the best in the world, they were unable to confront serious social issues. Their heavy discipline resulted in juvenile delinquency. An earlier Fulbrighter, Robin Winks, in a more balanced account, praised New Zealanders’ friendliness but noted their provincialism, narrow-mindedness and refusal to accept criticism.

Ausubel was very critical of New Zealand racial attitudes and presented evidence of prejudice and discrimination. The book created hot debate – but it only presented, in stronger language, ideas that other visitors had shared. Thirty years later British writer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who had ridden on horseback through New Zealand, was also critical of Pākehā attitudes towards Māori.

Not all negative

Not all 20th-century visitors were so damning. English novelist J. B. Priestley, visiting in 1973, found the country a ‘special place’ because it was ‘new, innocent, naïve, still friendly and not artfully predatory’.9 His descriptions highlighted New Zealand’s cultural richness.

Tip for tat

In 2006 the English comedian John Cleese visited New Zealand. He found Wellington sophisticated and Napier fabulous, but Palmerston North did not fare so well. ‘If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick,’ he wrote, dubbing the city ‘the suicide capital of New Zealand’.10 In return a sign saying ‘Mt Cleese’ appeared on top of a compost heap at the city’s rubbish dump.

Getting over it

By the start of the 21st century New Zealanders were less concerned about individual visitors’ reactions to their homeland. The country was more self-assured and social change had transformed some of the earlier targets of criticism – there had been a revolution in shopping hours and in food quality, for example. There were so many overseas visitors that comments by prominent individuals did not draw the attention they once had. In terms of mass tourism, the judgements of travel guides garnered interest. In general the views of travel publishers such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide were positive, emphasising the country’s physical beauty, opportunities for adventure tourism and good nightlife. Wellington endlessly promoted Lonely Planet’s comment that the city was ‘the coolest little capital in the world.’11

  1. Robin W. Winks, These New Zealanders. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1954, p. 45. Back
  2. Quoted in Jonathan Eisen and Katherine Joyce Smith eds., Strangers in paradise. Auckland: Vintage New Zealand, 1991, p. 257. Back
  3. Quoted in Strangers in paradise, p. 211. Back
  4. Quoted in Strangers in paradise, p. 214. Back
  5. Quoted in Strangers in paradise, p. 212. Back
  6. Quoted in Lydia Wevers, ed., Travelling to New Zealand: an Oxford anthology. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 256. Back
  7. Quoted in Chris Bourke, ‘Close encounters.’ New Zealand Listener, 6 November 2010, (last accessed 5 March 2012). Back
  8. Paul Theroux, The happy isles of Oceania. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992, p. 22. Back
  9. J. B. Priestley, A visit to New Zealand. London: Heinemann, 1974, p. 149. Back
  10. Quoted in ‘Basil finds Fawlt with grotty Palmy.’ New Zealand Herald, 8 March 2006, (last accessed 5 March 2012). Back
  11. Quoted in ‘Lonely Planet acclaim for the “coolest little capital in the world”.’ (last accessed 5 March 2012). Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Visitors’ opinions about New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012