by Sandy Myhre
It’s often been said that the Far North of New Zealand is the forgotten part of New Zealand. In fact. only one in every five tourists arriving in New Zealand come north despite the Bay of Islands being a jewel in the country’s scenic crown and host to hundreds of cruise ships and thousands of passengers.
It’s also the most historic region in the country and yet, four out of five tourists simply turn left after arriving in Auckland and head elsewhere, mostly to Rotorua and Queenstown.
That’s about the change. Under the new coalition government (Labour, Greens and New Zealand First) from what’s termed the Provincial Growth Fund the region is about to benefit from millions of dollars of infrastructure investment. This includes:
- A new terminal for the Bay of Islands Airport at Kerikeri
- Upgrades to the Paihia wharf, the first entry point for cruise ship passengers and one of New Zealand’s busiest in terms of passenger traffic, second only to Auckland Viaduct wharf precinct.
- Upgrades to the Russell wharf, a high-density ferry and commercial charter boat stop-off point
- A new wharf-side pontoon at Opua, the first port-of-call for overseas cruising yachts, super yachts and large launches
- A new interpretive gallery and arts workshop in Kawakawa (home to the famous Hundertwasser toilets).
- A cultural heritage tourism and education centre at Opononi to celebrate the arrival of the first Maori to arrive in New Zealand (Kupe) nearly 1000 years ago.
The initial multi-million-dollar investment programme was announced early in March by the Minister of Regional Development, the Hon Shane Jones, himself a Far North man. During the official release of the news at Paihia wharf he was flanked by the Hon Winston Peters, Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Kelvin Davis, Minister for Tourism, Labour MP, Willow-Jean Prime.
Image: At Paihia Wharf for the Regional Development Announcement. From left: Minister for Foreign Affairs Hon Winston Peters, Minister for Regional Development Hon Shane Jones, Labour MP Willow Jean Prime, Minister for Tourism Hon Kelvin Davis.
If such a long-awaited injection of funds wasn’t significant enough, the first major surprise was that the high-powered parliamentary team arrives early for the announcement. Further, a singularly unique aspect of the occasion is that all the Ministers of the Crown involved in the funding arrangements are born in the region and all have Maori heritage. There would be few, if any, colonised country that could claim such lofty indigenous (tangata whenua) representation.
As Mr Jones quipped, one of his Far North ancestors ran the most successful grog shops in the Bay of Islands during the early Colonial era of the early 1800s.
While some media and a few opposition (National) Members of Parliament hinted at a vested-interest bias and heavy regional parochialism, and called them a Robin Hood Band of Bros handing out money from the rich to give to the poor, the regional development fund was announced late last year mere weeks after the new government was sworn in. It was coincidence (and good fortune from their viewpoint) that all successful Far North and Northland parliamentary candidates had Maori blood.
Newly-elected Labour MP, Willow Jean Prime, aptly summed up the region’s hitherto lack of funding and development.
“It was business study after business study and until this was announced I would think ‘oh, no, not another one!”
After neglect comes a literal wealth of investment. After investment comes, what? Tourists, hopefully, but it’s an anomaly that the Bay of Islands and the Far North generally are not marketed individually. Rather, they are promoted under the general Northland banner by the Regional Economic Development Agency with a significant emphasis on Whangarei.
Neither do official statistics reveal tourist numbers to specific areas of the Far North (like Bay of Islands, Hokianga, Cape Reinga as examples) but to the whole of Northland. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests the Bay of Islands has significantly more tourist visitors than Whangarei.
Therein could lie an identity crisis that might need examination if the region is to take advantage of newly-formed infrastructure aimed at attracting the very commodity the Far North relies heavily on and wants to attract more of – tourists.