Kiwis and cabin fever go together like fish and chips

By Katie Stone

Flightless we may be, Kiwis still love to travel.

Yes, the length and breadth of our destinations have changed somewhat (well, a lot) in the past 18 months. Up until February 2020, ‘travel’ might have meant Brisbane or Bali or Berlin. It meant bookings, passports, suitcases, and jet lag.

Cue a global pandemic, and we had to get a little creative. As of May 2021, ‘travel’ could mean a road trip to the Bay of Islands. A hike through the Waitakeres. Cycling the Otago Rail Trail. Selfies with the L&P bottle. Catching up with Nana in Ohakune. Adopting the van life.

By Katie Stone

Flightless we may be, Kiwis still love to travel.

Yes, the length and breadth of our destinations have changed somewhat (well, a lot) in the past 18 months. Up until February 2020, ‘travel’ might have meant Brisbane or Bali or Berlin. It meant bookings, passports, suitcases, and jet lag.

Cue a global pandemic, and we had to get a little creative. As of May 2021, ‘travel’ could mean a road trip to the Bay of Islands. A hike through the Waitakeres. Cycling the Otago Rail Trail. Selfies with the L&P bottle. Catching up with Nana in Ohakune. Adopting the van life.

Some 30 years after the jaunty advertising campaign: ‘Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country’, the New Zealand Tourism and Publicity Department have got their way.

We’re still on the move. We’re still exploring. We’re just doing it within our own backyard. And, instead of grieving our closed borders, something incredible has bloomed; a newfound appreciation for what it means to be Kiwi, to be far from the pandemonium and free to roam about on our own patch of dirt. As much as we miss the chime of Big Ben and the taste of real Mexican chipotle, we’re more or less coping with the travel blues.

From globetrotters to home birds
Kiwis have always been globetrotters. Right up until Covid struck, Kiwis were taking more overseas trips than ever before. In 2018, data from Statistics New Zealand showed that the number of us heading off abroad was growing almost as fast as that for visitor arrivals.

Like many other Kiwis, I left our fair shores at the age of 21 for a working holiday in Ireland. I didn’t care where I worked – as long as it was enough to pay my rent, food, and perhaps party a little. I came back, only to leave again at 26 to teach English in India and China. Later, armed with another couple of letters after my name, I figured out a way to work remotely. For nearly three years, I travelled over five continents as a so-called digital nomad.

But whenever anyone asked where I was from, I never had the right answers. I would hear:

“Ahh, New Zealand is so beautiful! I saw Lord of the Rings! What are the mountains really like?”

“I’ve been to your country! How did you like the Milford Track?”

“You’re so lucky! You must go skiing and surfing every day!”

Smiling brightly and agreeing was much easier than admitting I hadn’t, erm, done any of that stuff. No Great Walks. No skiing on Ruapehu. No bungy jumping. No half-time selfies at Eden Park with the All Blacks.

Yet, I’d lived in Europe, Vietnam, India, Mexico, and Thailand. I’d climbed the Eiffel Tower, stood before the Taj Mahal, walked the Himalayas, kissed the Blarney Stone, and gazed down at the bones of Lucy, the first hominid. Among other bucket-list items.

Sadly, I wasn’t – and still am not – the only one.

The ‘Big OE’ has long been a Kiwi rite of passage. You go to uni, grab a degree, and pack your bags for London. Or Australia, or Canada, or Japan. Anywhere that wasn’t on State Highway One.

The OE phenomenon dates back to the 1950s and survived through to … well, 2020. Parts of London – Shepherds Bush, Acton, Hammersmith – are still known as ‘Little New Zealand’. In 2001, Acton’s fifth-largest migrant population were Kiwis. After all, London was where life began! Want to visit Scotland or Paris? Take the train! Want to experience Hagia Sophia? You could be there in the time it takes to drive from Auckland to Taupo!

Such was our fervour to see those foreign shores that, back in 2002, the government was panicking about a ‘brain drain’. Young, educated Kiwis were leaving in colossal numbers to experience the wider world. Most would return – eventually – but many stayed away, settling elsewhere with new careers and families. It was feared that our tiny nation was losing its best and brightest. And perhaps they were. Currently, more of our skilled population live offshore than any other OECD country.

But it wasn’t just the graduates who were heading off. The late 1990s and 2000s saw an increase in the number of people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s departing New Zealand on a long-term basis. These older travellers – many of them baby boomers – saw their empty nests as a chance to see what they’d missed out on earlier in life.

Last year, over 3 million of us arrived back from overseas trips. That was 175,100 more than in 2017. About 1.2 million of those trips were to holiday destinations, while another 1 million involved visiting family or friends.

Our lust for new pastures has also broadened. In the 1980s, nearly half of us leaving NZ were heading just over the ditch to Australia and just five percent to Asia. By 2017, Australia-bound travel had shrunk to 43 per cent and Asia had swelled to 18 per cent. We were also favouring Africa and the Americas over our previously beloved European and UK destinations.

The New Era of Travelling In

The pandemic has crippled economies and spread fear all over the world. And not just fear, but cabin fever.

The sudden announcement of a six-week lockdown in March last year seemed to come out of nowhere and rattled us to our core. Having barely got used to the idea that a pandemic was inevitable, we were suddenly told that the country was shutting up and we were to stay home.

Over the past year and a half, hundreds of thousands of Kiwis have come home to wait out the drama. Job losses and travel restrictions have created further incentives for expats to pack up their overseas lives. Survey data suggests that around 250,000 Kiwis who are still overseas are planning to return home within the next two years, with a further 250,000 indicating they will follow after that.

As for the rest of us, Covid-19 has killed all our overseas travel plans, including any young ‘uns’ dreams of an OE.

But while the rest of the world scrambles to cope with masks and social distancing, New Zealand has slowly come to realise that we’re very, very lucky. Not only does our geographical isolation protect us (somewhat) from ‘that virus’, we also get to do what many cannot: explore a pretty fabulous backyard.

Such was our joy at finally reaching Level 1 after those torturous six weeks that we hit the roads in droves. Suddenly, we felt safe and free. We were also busting to travel. Before it could be taken away from us again. So, we dined out. We booked flights. We bought tents, campervans, kayaks.

The ‘Do Something New, New Zealand’ campaign has seen us flock to the beaches, mountains, and everywhere in between. Domestic escapes and ‘staycations’ are the new normal. Campervan hires and sales have boomed: when Tourism Holdings Ltd (THL) sold off 1000 vehicles to compensate for the lack of tourists, the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) received almost 300 membership applications. By the end of August, over 1000 Kiwis had become new motorhome owners.

Another campervan hire company netted 20,000 bookings after a $29-a-day rental promotion.

Now more than ever we appreciate what a fantastic place New Zealand is. As Kiwis start exploring more of New Zealand, we’re realising just how much we have on offer.

Some restaurants even made record sales over the 2020-2021 summer. Holiday parks throughout the Coromandel enjoyed a huge influx of campers, with many park owners saying that New Zealanders had filled gaps left by overseas visitors.

Of course, the efforts of five million(ish) Kiwis can’t quite fill the $6 billion hole left by overseas tourists. But we’re giving it a good shot. And, until the borders open again, we are the lifeblood of our tourism economy.

Wanderlusters we may be, we’ve figured out that ‘doing something new’ doesn’t have to involve a passport. Something new can be anything beyond your front door. Attending a concert in the park. Buying an ice cream from a street vendor. Booking a fancy hotel for yourself and your partner (or just yourself). It all counts towards our economy. And there’s a bonus: supporting local is helping to keep our communities thriving and small businesses alive.

This pandemic has only brought home how much of a gift – and privilege – it is to be ‘stuck’ here. No longer can we take our pristine backyard for granted.

What’s next, then?

The vaccine rollout has returned hopes for restarting the world, including hope for opening the borders. Some governments have plans for vaccinated travel or so-called ‘travel passports’. The EU have just announced a Digital Green Pass, which stands to become a de-facto travel passport. Many countries within the EU are open to travellers from specified countries, depending on the Covid situation in their point of origin.

Of course, it can be a little grating to know that other people ‘out there’ are still travelling. At the time of writing, there are high hopes that we’ll soon be able to visit our Aussie neighbours. Otherwise, we can only wait patiently until the much-anticipated vaccine is distributed widely enough to get those international terminals operating again.

Until then?

The balm for my own itchy feet was in buying a (slightly) beat-up campervan. Over the past six months, Horace the Honda has taken me places I never knew existed – and never would, if it weren’t for Covid. From the white sands of Uretiti beach to a breathtakingly beautiful trail just out of Taumarunui, I’ve finally started to discover what the rest of the world knows about New Zealand.

Hang in there, New Zealand. We’ve still got a lot to explore.

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