The “Big OE” in the age of Covid: Where do we go now?

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

For many young New Zealanders, the concept of embarking on the ”Big OE” seems almost like a religious pilgrimage. “OE” stands for “overseas experience” and is a rite of passage where young, middle class, PākehāNew Zealanders take an extended journey overseas, working and travelling between various countries.

[caption id="attachment_2132" align="alignleft" width="570"] The author at The author at The Sweet Shop is a traditional English sweet shop in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. Trading since 1902 it is the oldest sweet shop in England.[/caption]

I have wanted to travel my entire life. The idea of traipsing all over the world was mightily appealing to me, especially when I dipped my toes into the travelling pool with a trip to England with my grandma. While my trip was not quite an overseas experience in the traditional sense, it was enough for me to realise that I would never be happy with only staying in my home country. That is one of the biggest reasons young

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

For many young New Zealanders, the concept of embarking on the ”Big OE” seems almost like a religious pilgrimage. “OE” stands for “overseas experience” and is a rite of passage where young, middle class, PākehāNew Zealanders take an extended journey overseas, working and travelling between various countries.

The author at The author at The Sweet Shop is a traditional English sweet shop in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. Trading since 1902 it is the oldest sweet shop in England.

I have wanted to travel my entire life. The idea of traipsing all over the world was mightily appealing to me, especially when I dipped my toes into the travelling pool with a trip to England with my grandma. While my trip was not quite an overseas experience in the traditional sense, it was enough for me to realise that I would never be happy with only staying in my home country. That is one of the biggest reasons young adults take an OE, of course.

New Zealand is an incredibly isolated and very small country, so it is quite common to want to venture away from the homeland and explore the other side of the globe. Because of its isolation and distance from other countries outside of Australia and the Pacific, the OE is more likely to be a major journey and is considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The typical age for a young New Zealander to go on an OE is either around the end of their university study or as long as it takes them to save up money once they had entered the workforce after high school. Some people even go so far as to consider an OE to be a valid alternative to higher education, oftentimes because an OE is a spiritual discovery of the world and of the self. This kind of discovery brings about a sense of self-awareness and worldliness that goes hand-in-hand with the myriad experiences people have when in a new, exotic, and foreign country. Many people who go on an OE mention that using common sense and local resources rather than relying on guided tours gives them a sense that they can conquer anything. It is a pilgrimage, so to speak. The “Big OE” has become such a big part of New Zealand culture that young adults – me included – often get asked why we have not yet left the country in search of wider horizons.

The term OE was coined in the 1970s once the more common use of OT (Overseas Trip) fell out of popularity. The institution itself has been well documented, with most biographies and autobiographies featuring an OE and coming-of-age sequence. In the 1920s and ’30s, the OE quickly became a cultural necessity, because artists and writers often made the ‘journey home’ (to Britain). Once commercial air travel became popular and opened up the world in the 1950s, young New Zealanders travelled to Europe and Britain either to explore their heritage or to escape from the “stifling narrowness of New Zealand” (Ell, 1994: 132 as cited in Bell, 2002).

Photo: Steven Lewis, Unsplash

As a part of the “Big OE”, many used the opportunities of various working holiday schemes to take the leap into travelling abroad. Working holidays allow young people the opportunity to stay in other countries with a certain level of immersion in the economic, social, and cultural aspects of the host locations. Because of this, people who partake in an OE end up staying longer than expected. A 2-year OE can extend to a 3 or even 5-year stay while working and building a life. Some people do not even know if they will ever come home, until the moment arises when they miss their family or the familiarity of their home country. No matter when they do eventually arrive, travellers always return feeling like they have changed.

True to form, I dreamed of travelling all over Europe – especially around the Mediterranean. I had a deep love of Ancient Greece throughout high school and dreamed of visiting the Acropolis. I even wanted to travel to Rome, Italy, and Turkey. But before I could finish my university studies and even dream of setting foot outside the country, the metaphorical prison doors slammed shut. The gates of heaven closed. With Covid came the indefinite end to the travelling dream.

So where does that leave the kids who never got to do their travelling?

The short answer is: it leaves us stuck. The opportunity for a ”Big OE” was taken away from us, and even worse was the fact that everyone who was away on their overseas experience was forced to come home. With international borders closing, it was a mad dash for many New Zealanders to get home in time.

42,800 New Zealand citizens returned home ending the year March 2020. Almost half of those people arrived between December 2019 and March 2020. As for departures, the same year saw a provisional estimate of 35,700 New Zealand citizens leave, which was well below average migrant departures of 52,800 per year. Statistics New Zealand estimated that as many as 7,200 New Zealanders never travelled away from New Zealand, creating a massive rift in the long-standing tradition of more New Zealanders being abroad than returning home (Stats NZ, 2020). Aside from the OE, any kind of overseas travel is important to middle class New Zealand culture. In October 2018, over 3 million New Zealand residents arrived back after overseas trips, in contrast to 10 years earlier when there were fewer than 2 million trips a year (Stats NZ, 2018).

Now that the New Zealand international borders have been closed for over a year, internal travel and domestic tourism have spiked to fill the void that not being able to travel overseas has left behind. With the closed borders, many New Zealanders took it as an opportunity to explore their own backyard without the hubbub of usual tourist congestion.

Before Covid, domestic tourism was worth roughly $23 billion to the New Zealand economy. I only recently took the time to travel to Rotorua to see all the tourist attractions there, and visited the Luge, the Gondola, and Whakarewarewa Forest (or Redwoods as it is also known by). More than 60% of New Zealanders have visited somewhere new or experienced a new tourist activity this year, and research shows 66% of New Zealanders plan to take a domestic holiday in the next year.

At the end of the day, there is not much us young travellers can do other than explore our own back yard – and this is not a bad thing. New Zealand was labelled the third most beautiful country in the world in 2017, and it is no wonder with our rolling hills, majestic mountains, and amazingly diverse landscapes. There is no limit to what you can do and see in this country, and there’s no other place quite like New Zealand that could quell the travel bug quite so well.

 

Sources: 1. The big ‘OE’. Tourist Studies 2. & 3. New Zealanders take more overseas trips than ever before; NZ citizens migrating home in record numbers, Stats NZ

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