How the great Kiwi holiday is changing

by Bruce Ansley / 20 December, 2003

How the great Kiwi holiday is changing

Those nostalgic memories of endless sunny days away from school and work are a mirage - the great Kiwi holiday is changing in imperceptible but profound ways

Some things don't change, and Bessie McLean is our witness. Sometimes not even she can remember how many years the McLean family have been going from Christchurch to Kaiteriteri for their Christmas holidays. More than 35 years anyway.

They have been using the same site in the same camping ground for more than 30 years. They go with the same families, the Phillipses and the Wilsons. The golden sands and azure sea of the Tasman paradise are exactly the same and the McLean family, as they always do at this time of the year, are looking forward to lying on the one and splashing in the other. Oh yes, one major difference: when I last spoke to them four years ago, they had a Zephyr caravan; now it's a Classic.

That is very reassuring. The siren call of Surfers' is ever louder, but New Zealand loves its Christmas hols at home. "New Zealand is still emphatically travelling over the two weeks of Christmas and nothing suggests to me that we're changing," says Bruce Bassett, from the Ministry of Tourism's research council. "Christmas holidays are still, absolutely, sacrosanct."

The council's figures show nights at places such as hotels and motels spiking up by a third in January. It's the month when everyone in the domestic tourism market knows just why they went into the business.

But although it may be hidden by trains of boats and caravans on the roads in the next fortnight or so, the Christmas holiday is in the grip of a steady revolution. The way New Zealanders are taking their holidays is changing.

The Christmas holiday is growing shorter. In fact, all holidays at home are getting briefer.

Not because New Zealanders do not like holidays. We love them more than ever. "Holidays are much higher up in people's spending priorities," says the Tourism Industry Association's John Moriarty.

But the pattern is changing. New Zealanders are holidaying overseas much more often. As Moriarty notes, it's cheaper to nip off to Queensland than for northerners to fly down to Queenstown, easier to go up to Rarotonga than it is for southerners to holiday in Rotorua: "One or two thousand dollars goes somewhere if you want Australia or the Islands."

At the same time, short breaks at home are ever more popular. (Moriarty: "Four days in New Zealand gets you a lot further than it does in Australia.")

The arithmetic is simple enough: three or four weeks annual holidays, a couple of weeks at Christmas, 10 days on Plantation Island, and you have left over ... hardly any leave at all.

So summer has shifted. Or split. Summer is for hols, as it always has been, but New Zealanders are keeping a little of it in reserve. Come winter, they look for another summer - in Noosa, or Plantation Island. The great New Zealand Winter Holiday in the sun is now as important to most as the Christmas hols.

"Travel and holidays are now seen by many New Zealanders as something they can afford and no longer have to save up for and go once in a blue moon," says Peter Lowrey from the Travel Agents' Association.

Each year 1.3m New Zealanders climb on a plane and leave their home for someone else's. The number is rising steadily. It is expected to reach 1.6m by 2009.

Already it is an extraordinary figure, a third of the entire population. It is all the more surprising that the numbers are so resilient. SARS and the Iraq war, not to mention sundry terrorism scares, put even New Zealanders off their trips in the early part of this year ("The first half of the year was dreadful," laments Lowrey). The various catastrophes stemmed the flow for a while and gave the domestic holiday industry a fillip. "Every cloud has a silver lining," says the Motel Association's Theo Simeonidis.

But since then, Kiwis have been piling on the planes with antipodean disregard for others' fusses; October showed an 11 percent rise over October 2002. "New Zealanders are really showing their resistance to not leaving home," says Lowrey. "Kiwis just love travelling. Nothing will stop them."

Not all of them are off on holiday, of course. Some have work to do, poor fools, others travel for family reasons. And most - that is, a little more than half of the 1.3m - go to Australia.

That is the depressing news about the New Zealand holiday. It is getting shorter, and it is certainly no coincidence that it's being truncated in direct proportion to the rise and rise of holidays overseas.

So back home the outlook is not so perky. "The tourism industry here is roughly split between 40 percent overseas visitors and 60 percent Kiwis," says Moriarty. "So the domestic sector is very important to us. It's the steady and dependable patronage you need to survive."

The trouble with that equation is that domestic tourism is expected to increase by just over a percent a year; less than half the growth rate for New Zealanders climbing on planes and zooming overseas.

Just who goes around New Zealand on holiday? The surprise answer is, Aucklanders do.

Far from knowing nothing south of the Bombay Hills, they are the nation's most inquisitive travellers.

Scarcely anyone else in the country leaves their island, save for Wellington people, who trip down to Marlborough to visit the vineyards or stay in their Sounds baches and tend to regard that region as an adjunct to the capital city.

So people in the Waikato will go to Auckland or the Coromandel or over to the Bay of Plenty beaches, but scarcely further. Wellington people will go as far north as Taupo, and of course to Marlborough. Christchurch folk will roam the length and breadth of the South Island - the West Coast is a particular favourite - but for true southerners Cook Strait remains a moat. Otago people will go scarcely further north than South Canterbury and for Southlanders, why look any further than Queenstown?

But Aucklanders are the great trippers. They spread themselves all over the North Island, then they'll give Christchurch and Queenstown a go, too. The main metropolitan areas drive the New Zealand domestic visitor industry and if Aucklanders decided to remain north of the Bombay Hills, the domestic visitor economy would be kicked right in the solar plexus.

The most popular region for overnight trips is Waikato, followed (in order) by Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Canterbury, Wellington, Manawatu-Wanganui, Northland and Otago.

International visitors spend a great deal more than domestic tourists. They know scarcely anything about the best place to buy fish and chips, and they are plonked in various gory but expensive pubs the length and breadth. Although they account for only two-thirds as many nights as domestic visitors do, they spend a third more in total.

Already 2m international visitors come to this country each year. That number is not huge by international standards - Ireland, with the same population, attracts 6m visitors a year - but it is growing steadily. The Tourism Research Council predicts a 30 percent rise in visitor nights over the next five years.

Tourism is now the most significant sector in the economy, but it creates another problem for New Zealanders wanting to holiday at home: where can they go to escape the tour buses and the awful prices?

Getting away from it all is getting harder.

The big five in international tourist destinations are Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Canterbury, Otago and Wellington. Auckland, Canterbury and Otago are expected to increasingly dominate the market.

When you add domestic tourism to the mix, the list becomes Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, Wellington and Waikato, which together account for 71 percent of visitor spending.

The seven key tourist centres in this country are Taupo, Coromandel, Rotorua, Christchurch, Queenstown/Central Otago, Dunedin/Coastal Otago and Fiordland. Together they account for a quarter of all nights spent in New Zealand and 31 percent or $3.5b of all tourist expenditure.

So smart holiday-makers can sort through these lists for places to avoid.

You may, for example, decide to stay away from Auckland. The Queen City is only going to get more crowded. It's already number one for visitors, and the forecasts for the next five years predict a huge 63 percent growth. Translate that to Mission Bay and you're talking Surfers' in spades.

If you're sick of the Nikon chorus, you might go to the other end of the growth spectrum and try Marlborough, where you can still wander the vineyards in peace or lose yourself in the Sounds.

Within the tourism industry Gisborne is often referred to as the nation's best-kept secret. The East Coast is still an oasis - unlike the West Coast, for that once-browbeaten region now features third after Auckland and Otago on the table of strongest predicted visitor-spending growth. As a general rule, the more a region depends on domestic travellers rather than international ones, the slower its growth.

Try Riverton. Or Karitane. Or Mt Peel, Nelson, Hicks Bay, Ohope Beach, Raglan, the Hokianga.

Holidays may have changed, but New Zealanders have not.

The Dunedin City Council does little surveys to see how locals are feeling. When they asked what people were doing for summer, most replied simply that they were relaxing or getting away.

We are still doing what we always did over Christmas, piling in the car and going somewhere. Bessie McLean's children have now grown up and they are doing just what their parents have always done at Christmas and camping at Kaiteriteri. Except, they now have separate accommodation and their mum can say, as thousands of mums have wanted to say after thousands of Christmas hols, "Thank heaven for that."

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