Ask people their perceptions of New Zealand and most will either mention sheep or say ‘that’s miles away’. But the country is shaking off this image to become a key incentive travel destination.

Get as far away from it all as you possibly can” is the current catchline of the New Zealand tourism board. It cleverly manages to turn round what is perhaps the worst aspect of a trip down under – the 24- to 30-hour journey time from the UK – into a positive advantage.

However, the slogan seems to be tapping into a growth of British interest in New Zealand. Consumer tourism out of the UK is on the increase, and so is business travel. In 1995, convention and incentive delegate numbers rose by 24 per cent year on year and the trend is expected to continue.

According to many industry observers on the ground in New Zealand, incentive groups visiting the country tend to fall into two categories. Natasha Hirtzel, a spokeswoman for Tourism Auckland, explains: “The main attraction is the landscape, but there are some incentive groups who want to look at it and others who want to go a bit wild in it.”

Annabel Lush, managing director of NZ Dimensions, adds: “To the older, traditional UK market the appeal is the scenic beauty, the open spaces, the opportunity to get out on the water or do some fly fishing or stay overnight at an upmarket lodge, enjoying wine and fresh, unprocessed food. They really enjoy the laidback atmosphere and often take the opportunity of being here to add a VFR (visiting friends and relatives) element to the trip.

“In addition to this market there is a growing group of more sophisticated travellers looking for more of an adventure. They will be into bush treks, white-water rafting, paragliding, water jetting and the like. For both types of group it means they can escape winter and of course there is always the opportunity to link the incentive to a major sporting event, involving say rugby or cricket or sailing.”

On a smaller scale than Australia or the US, the two islands that make up the country comprise a land mass similar to that of the UK. But the size of New Zealand’s population, just 3.5 million people, means that the countryside appears spacious and unspoilt with clean air and relatively little traffic on the roads.

The historical connections with Britain make it easy for the British to feel comfortable here. Most New Zealanders have some family somewhere in the UK and will readily remind English visitors that, unlike the first Europeans to visit Australia, most early settlers in New Zealand came of their own free will. The excellent infrastructure of the country means you can get around easily and quickly.

Jenny Vazey is general manager of Auckland-based inbound destination management company General Travel. She is working with the NZ Tourism Board to establish a consortium in the UK to ease access to incentive groups. She says: “As a destination people don’t realise New Zealand is eco-friendly and very sophisticated. We can cater for big conventions and organise incentive programmes for any number. The country offers a wide variety of things to do and we have both winter and summer incentives, everything from skiing to sailing.”

Incentive groups from the UK may also want to explore another country altogether. The most likely options for stopovers are Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore, or one of the South Pacific islands. A stay solely in New Zealand traditionally means gatewaying through Auckland, travelling down North Island to Rotorua and then flying to Christ-church or Queenstown in South Island.

Auckland, the City of Sails, is the largest city in New Zealand and contains two-thirds of the country’s population. However, Wellington, the capital, is pushing itself as a possible alternative destination for groups. Wellington can claim to be the cultural heartland of New Zealand and is a small enough city to walk around. The arts are well supported here with a biennual International Music Festival, taking place next in February 1998.

Another major project, to open next year, is the Museum of New Zealand; the new waterfront museum is the biggest national museum project underway in the world.

The museum will contain a Marae (Maori meeting place) which can be hired by incentive visitors. And for non-traditional museum goers there will be a virtual reality section, where visitors can experience a virtual bungy jump or enjoy some virtual sheep-shearing.

New Zealand has become particularly well known for its wine in recent years and visits to wineries are often popular with incentive groups. There are vineyards all over the country now and 330 wineries at the last count.

The Hawkes Bay region on the east of North Island is particularly well known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and many of the wineries there offer organised tours to incentive groups.

For more down to earth pleasures one popular incentive group theme day involves delegates being rounded up in a bar by a sheepdog then served cocktails out of sheep-drench guns and treated to country dancing and a pig on a spit.

Even the “high energy” incentive groups will want their creature comforts. Manfred Schneider, general manager of the Sheraton in Rotorua, says: “Most incentive groups may be quite happy to rough it for an afternoon but ultimately they want to come back to comfort and good food.”

There are plenty of good quality hotels in New Zealand, but the backbone of the country’s tourist industry, and certainly an interesting alternative type of accommodation for UK visitors, is the Homestay. Homestays are guest houses which cater for small numbers, where visitors mix in the living room and usually sit round a dining table together. Homestay owners are usually couples who try to make visitors feel they are visiting someone’s house rather than a small hotel.

Lodges are another possibility for groups. These range from the fairly basic, like Pencarrow Station where a day out can incorporate horse trekking, trout fishing and four-wheel drives, to the extremely upmarket, like Moose Lodge just outside Rotorua, famous for its food, its exclusive lakeside setting and for accommodating most of the British royal family at some time or other.

New Zealand will have to work hard to win its incentive market from the UK. After all, practically every other destination in the world is closer. But in its favour it has plenty of experience in catering for incentive groups – particularly from Asia and the US – as well as a variety of places and activities suitable for the market and a desire to make visitors welcome, especially when they have come as far away from it all as they possibly can.

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