Aotearoa-New Zealand is a bucket list destination for many travelers and has long had a reputation for outdoor adventure and picturesque landscapes. However, when the country closed to visitors in March 2020, many travelers were left wondering when they’d be able to visit.
Ultimately, the country decided to take a cautious approach to reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, keeping its borders closed for a little more than two years. Recognizing the rare opportunity to reflect on its tourism industry, Aotearoa-New Zealand used the unplanned time without millions of international arrivals to plan and prepare for a post-pandemic world.
As a result, the island nation emerged as a paragon of resilience, optimism and ingenuity in the travel space — and a clear contender for TPG’s pick of the top international destination of 2022.
By focusing on attracting high-value, low-impact visitors (such as upscale eco-lodge guests and others committed to traveling sustainably) and placing a new significance on Indigenous experiences and business opportunities, Aotearoa-New Zealand is paving a new way forward for tourism. Hopefully without losing its allure to more budget-minded travelers like backpackers and road-trippers, who have traditionally made up a sizable segment of the country’s visitors.
Not to mention, the country’s renewed focus on airlift and connectivity to major international markets like the U.S. is making it easier than ever for people to reach New Zealand, especially ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which Aotearoa-New Zealand will cohost with Australia in 2023.
Even though it only reopened to travelers in May, Aotearoa-New Zealand quickly reclaimed its spot as one of the most coveted destinations in the world for adventure seekers and environmentally focused travelers. And the momentum will only continue in the new year.
A siren song for adventurous visitors
As the country’s borders reopened to international visitors, Tourism New Zealand launched a global campaign called “If You Seek.” Through this campaign, the country aims to draw outdoorsy types, culture hounds and others interested in venturing beyond the nation’s main urban centers by providing a look at the people and places of Aotearoa-New Zealand and authentically reflecting the uniqueness of Maori culture.
Featured destinations and sights include Tane Mahuta (the largest living kauri tree, which is said to be more than 2,000 years old and resides in the Waipoua Forest) and Hooker Valley near Aoraki/Mount Cook (the country’s highest peak). Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, a 175-kilometer (roughly 109-mile) path for biking and hiking through the Nelson Tasman region, is also spotlighted as a must-visit destination.
Highlighting these nature-focused locales was an intentional decision, as they are the kinds of places that will appeal to the travelers Aotearoa-New Zealand aims to attract: People who share similar goals and intentions that align with the sustainability initiatives set forth by the country.
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“These are visitors who we think will explore more deeply and ultimately contribute to New Zealand’s tourism sector in ways beyond the economic benefit,” Tourism New Zealand chief executive René de Monchy said in a recent statement. “They are [travelers] who want to engage with our culture, society and also interact with our environment in a respectful way.”
Given its commitment to preserving the environment (more than 33% of the nation’s landscapes are protected), it should come as no surprise that much of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s best sights are found in nature. From stunning black-sand beaches made from volcanic rocks to the otherworldly luminescence of glowworms in the Waitomo Caves, the small country is full of memorable natural wonders.
Few, however, are as awe-inspiring as Fiordland National Park. On the South Island’s west coast, Fiordland is where you’ll find Milford Sound, a fiord known for its jaw-dropping views of waterfalls, mountains and wildlife. The fjord is so mesmerizing that English novelist Rudyard Kipling is said to have described it as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
While you can check out Milford Sound during a daytrip from nearby Queenstown or Te Anau, consider allotting at least a couple of days to see the fjord and its surroundings. Spend the night on board a two-day luxury cruise to explore the calm waters of Milford Sound in style. Or, rough it during a multiday hike through Fiordland National Park.
Kepler Track is known as one of the best trails, and visitors should only attempt this 37-mile loop during the Great Walks Season from mid-October through mid-April (New Zealand’s spring, summer and fall) since alpine weather can be harsh during the winter months requiring extra gear. Hikers normally take four days and three nights to complete this route, and there are huts and campsites along the way that you must book in advance.
“The drive to the Sound is incredible, and the park itself is full of mirrored lakes that reflect the sky and mountains,” said Clint Henderson, TPG’s managing editor of news. “My trip to New Zealand still stands out as one of my all-time favorite adventures thanks, in part, to my visit to Fiordland National Park.”
Related: Searching for a unicorn: My dream trip to New Zealand on points and miles
Commitment to sustainability
Home to an impressive 13 national parks, this island nation roughly the size of Colorado keeps sustainability top of mind in everything it does. In addition to being mindful of the tourism industry’s environmental impact, the Aotearoa-New Zealand government factors sustainability into major policy decisions.
For example, the country regularly includes enforceable climate commitments in free trade agreements it negotiates with other countries. Additionally, at the New Zealand Tourism conference in November, Air New Zealand reiterated its pledge to be net-zero carbon neutral by 2050.
Just prior to the coronavirus pandemic, New Zealand Tourism also launched the Tiaki Promise, a pledge for sustainability for both visitors and residents that includes highlighting lesser-known destinations in an effort to reduce overtourism. The principles of the Tiaki Promise are not dissimilar to those of Leave No Trace, a collection of seven conservation-focused principles that are promoted in national parks and other locations across the U.S.
For example, Kaai Silbery, owner of Go Wild Apiary in Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, is leading the development of the local honey industry on the island together with other apiarists seeking to ensure the islands remain a disease-free sanctuary for bees. Silbery’s freeze-dried honey is derived from pollen collected from the prehistoric Tarahina tree, which can only be found on the Chatham Islands.
Silbery told TPG that, since the Tiaki Promise launched, she’s seen an increase in visitors and has also noticed an increase in overall care for the Chatham Islands (Rekohu) and the endangered species that call the Chathams home.
“From my experience,” Silbery said, “and through the tours of my business … I’ve definitely noticed an increase in interest to learn more about Chatham Island’s rich apiculture, flora and the incredible history of our bees — my great uncle was a beekeeper on the Chatham Islands!”
Silbery added that she’s also observed “a huge increase in the rich history of our Moriori culture on the Chatham Islands (Rekohu), which is growing fast.”
Can’t-miss cultural experiences
Many of Tourism New Zealand’s efforts have focused on sustainability, but its emphasis on promoting authentic cultural experiences is equally as important.
There are a number of Maori cultural encounters and experiences you can partake in when you visit. For example, in Rotorua, you can enjoy a traditional hangi feast that’s prepared in heated pits dug in the ground. Or, you can join an interpretive storytelling trek up Maunga Hikurangi on the North Island’s east coast.
If you’re visiting in June or July (two of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s winter months), time your trip to coincide with Matariki, the Maori new year. People from across Aotearoa-New Zealand come together to celebrate the past, present and future with food, stories and music during this special event, which was made a public holiday in 2022.
Don’t forget to check out Whakarewarewa in Rotorua if you find yourself on the North Island. TPG’s coordinating editor, Christine Gallipeau, has visited the country three times and still considers her time at Whakarewarewa to be one of her favorite Aotearoa-New Zealand experiences.
“The Maori residents graciously share their stories and cultural traditions with visitors, making it a truly memorable experience,” she said. “I’ve never consistently encountered such warmth and kindness from strangers like I have in New Zealand and greatly respect and admire the country’s commitment to preserving its Indigenous heritage.”
New hotels prioritizing culture and sustainability
This year was the first time that international visitors were able to experience more than a dozen hotels that opened in 2021 or 2022 while the borders were closed. There are several noteworthy new hotels in Aotearoa-New Zealand, especially within its bustling cities.
On the North Island, there’s the art-filled Park Hyatt Auckland, a surprisingly affordable property in the heart of Auckland’s central business district. In this eye-catching hotel, you’ll find design details inspired by Maori culture and crafts, including a screen-like exterior made to resemble a traditional cloak known as a Korowai.
The Hotel Britomart, in Auckland’s central business district, was designed to meet the New Zealand Green Building Council’s strict eco-friendly standards, earning it a Five Green Star rating. In addition to committing to New Zealand Tourism’s Tiaki Promise, the property has adopted a firm business goal of being as free of single-use plastics as possible by requesting that all suppliers deliver products in compostable, biodegradable, recyclable or reusable packaging. So far, it’s at 95% compliance.
On the South Island, standouts include The Carlin Hotel, a boutique, all-suite property in Queenstown. Here, guests will enjoy sweeping views of the Eyre and Remarkables mountain ranges surrounding Lake Wakatipu.
Additionally, there’s Hapuku Lodge + Tree Houses, a chic property in Kaikoura designed to complement its location on a coastal deer breeding farm. Built with reclaimed timber, the family-owned property aims to nurture its environment through a variety of sustainable practices. Those include planting native trees on-site, growing organic vegetables and herbs, sourcing local ingredients from nearby farmers and ranchers, and recycling and composting as much as it can so it can become a zero-waste community.
Increased flight connectivity
While direct flights from West Coast cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco were available prior to the pandemic, visiting the country is even easier now that Air New Zealand has nonstop service from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Auckland Airport (AKL), which launched in September of 2022.
Qantas is launching the same route in March 2023, so there will be yet another option for U.S.-based travelers on top of the various points and miles options already available.
It’s no accident that the country has sought new route options for Americans interested in visiting Aotearoa-New Zealand, as the U.S. is the country’s third-largest visitor market, according to Tourism New Zealand.
“The return of [travelers] to New Zealand and the recovery of air links from important markets such as North America is an important step for the tourism sector,” de Monchy said in a recent Tourism New Zealand statement. “We’re able to join forces with Air New Zealand, so that destination New Zealand attracts high-quality visitors from this important market.”
Air New Zealand echoes this sentiment.
“The U.S. has always been a key market for us, and this new route cements our commitment to developing growing tourism opportunities between the two countries,” Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran told TPG. “In the six years leading up to [COVID-19], the U.S. visitor numbers to New Zealand doubled and looking at the average spend in New Zealand by U.S. tourists, we estimate that this new route would contribute an additional $65 million per year into the local economy.”
Related: Take a look inside Air New Zealand’s unique cabin innovation laboratory
For travelers seeking Indigenous experiences, Aotearoa-New Zealand makes it easy by emphasizing and appreciating Maori culture in everyday life. Here, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword but an important countrywide initiative prioritized by hotels, airlines and the entire travel industry to meet climate targets and continue efforts to care for the land and its people.
These are the reasons the nation isn’t just our top international destination for 2022 but why it’s also included on our list of best places to travel in 2023.
It’s obvious the country made the best of a bad situation — when international visitation stopped, leaders took care with pandemic precautions and a very measured reopening. The time was well used by the tourism industry to strategically plan for a new campaign, new air service and a sustainable future. With a major sporting event on the horizon in 2023, a slate of new hotels and additional nonstop flights from the U.S., there’s a lot to entice visitors.
If Aotearoa-New Zealand has been on your bucket list, make this the year you finally go. With so many positive developments, it’s bursting back onto the tourism scene in a big way.