Last Updated On 22nd May 2023 By Lauren | Wild Lovely World
I’ve been a tourist in New Zealand since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here is my experience.
I arrived in Auckland on the 10th of March 2020. Like any other backpacker entering New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa, I was looking forward to travelling around the country while picking up a job here or there. I had dreamed of going to New Zealand for many years and finally, the moment arrived that I stepped on Kiwi soil.
Despite the jet lag, I didn’t mind waiting in the queues at immigration. Soon I would be on the other side and making my way to collect my backpack from the baggage carousel.
I excitedly jumped on the Airport Link bus and took the journey to downtown Auckland. The day was sunny and the strong heat struck me. Palm trees lined the avenues and I got glimpses of green parks, trendy cafes and quirky thrift stores on my way to the hostel.
Checking into my room and jumping onto my bunk, I said hello to my fellow backpacker hostel mates before I laid my head down to rest. As I drifted into a deep sleep, I thought of what my new life in New Zealand would be like and I was looking forward to all the good things to come…
Nine days after that day, New Zealand closed its borders. No one was allowed to enter, bar a very few exceptions. It was such a snap decision, it took us all by surprise. I didn’t see it coming, and I’m not sure (besides the scientists and policymakers) who did.
Travelling From The UK To New Zealand In The Early Days Of The Pandemic: January – March 2020
My partner, Fiachra, and I left the UK at the end of January 2020. We spent a month or so travelling in South East Asia before heading to New Zealand to begin our 12-month Working Holiday Visas.
We were aware of “a virus originating in China” when we left the UK, but we didn’t think much of it. There’d already been other epidemics during our lifetime, for example, H1N1 Swine Flu, and those didn’t affect us much. The only lifestyle change I really noticed from it is that it became more popular to carry mini bottles of hand sanitiser in our handbags. So when we heard about Covid-19, we thought we had nothing to be worried about. We will just sanitise and wash our hands regularly and we would be fine!
We travelled from Singapore, through Malaysia and into Thailand by land and sea. Each time we crossed a border, the checks became more intense.
In the beginning, there was nothing to worry about. No one was wearing masks, there were no temperature checks and no disruptions to any of our travel plans. But by the time we got to Bangkok after around 5 weeks of travelling, we started to become worried. Things were starting to look more serious.
Countries were already talking about closing their borders and cancelling their flights. We realised that if we were going to go to New Zealand then we needed to get there fast. We booked our flights and made our way, entering the country just before it was too late.
Being A Tourist In A Country Where There Were No Tourists
It was pretty weird to be a tourist in a country where there were no tourists.
For the two-plus years of the border closure, we were like unicorns or rhinos, mythical beings or a critically endangered species. There were a few of us around, but they were few and far between.
The only other tourists we encountered were those who, like us, had entered just before the border closure. We were all thrilled at entering the country in the nick of time. None of us saw it coming. But how grateful we were!
We realised that we had chanced upon this amazing opportunity to explore New Zealand without worrying about crowds or queues or noise. We were able to just be and enjoy!
When we stayed in hostels or motels, we were often the only guests. We ate at restaurants and were the only diners. We visited museums and were the only patrons in the exhibits. We stayed at campsites and were the only campervan to stop for the night. We went to the beach and were the only people there. We hiked mountains and didn’t see another walker the whole way.
“Are You Stuck Here?”
New Zealanders, after hearing my northern British accent, often looked at me in surprise and asked: “Are you stuck here?”. To me, to be asked that question sounded as if they could not believe that a foreigner would stay in New Zealand of their own free will, which would have made me laugh. But this happened so many times it wasn’t funny. To answer the question – “No, I have not been stuck here. I could have left whenever I wanted, I just didn’t want to.”
In the months since the border closed, thousands of travellers did leave, but no more were allowed to enter. Fearing they would be banned from entering their own countries, people scrambled to pack their bags and booked flights eagerly and in sheer panic. But I was one of the ones who didn’t want to leave (and still doesn’t, not quite yet). I had only just arrived in the country – why would I have left then, after dreaming of coming here for years beforehand? Now, I have been happy to be in New Zealand for the last 2.5 years, and even more grateful to have been here throughout the pandemic.
Because of the way New Zealand handled things during Covid-19, I’ve had it pretty fucking brilliant, to be honest. Life has been pretty darn good for me the last three years. That may sound ludicrous to most people, who may have had their lives turned upside down or have been devasted by what Covid-19 brought to them. But I’ve had a very different experience. Let me explain…
Life Has Been Pretty Normal For Me In The Pandemic, & I Still Haven’t Had Covid
I am in a country with one of the lowest rates of coronavirus cases in the world. I’ve been able to live my life almost like usual. Besides a few lockdowns and having to wear a mask every now and then, there was a period of time throughout 2020 and 2021 when I did not even have to think or worry about the coronavirus. While the rest of the world was struggling to contain the virus, New Zealand had eradicated it completely. And all of this was largely thanks to the borders being closed.
Even after the arrival of Covid-19 in our world more than 3 years ago, I have still not contracted the virus (update – I contracted Covid-19 for the first time in May 2023 after traveling to Melbourne, Australia. Still, I had a good run of it to hold out that long!). How incredibly lucky am I? Lucky, definitely. But also cautious. I have been taking precautions throughout the whole pandemic – getting vaccinated and boosted, complying with lockdown rules, wearing a mask, washing my hands thoroughly etc. I’ve done everything I could have done to not get Covid, but I think being in New Zealand definitely helped.
Despite the pandemic happening, I’ve still been able to work and travel in New Zealand. I’ve travelled the entirety of the North and South Islands in my campervan and seen all the best things that the country has to offer as well as those hidden gems.
Taking it slow and having been given more time with visa extensions, I’ve been able to spend longer in New Zealand, spent more money here than any typical tourist would ever have done, and visited and worked in remote and isolated locations across the country.
Exploring New Zealand With No Crowds Or Queues
There have been benefits to being one of the only tourists in an extremely touristy destination. When we go sightseeing, we never have to worry about finding a parking space or a camping spot for the night in our campervan. Places that were previously rammed with tourists are now quiet and serene.
I have heard horror stories of what it used to be like – queues of campervans on the highway to Aoraki Mount Cook; hundreds of walkers on the Rob Roy Track with people queuing 40 minutes to take their photos at the viewpoint; freedom campsites so full to the brim that they are overflowing. Throughout my time in New Zealand, I have seen none of that. The roads have been quiet, the trails have been empty, and the campsites have been peaceful.
Before the pandemic, New Zealand was heading into the dangerous territory of over-tourism. The environment was suffering, rubbish was piled high, and New Zealand’s infrastructure couldn’t cope. With all that stripped back with the borders closed, New Zealand has been able to reassess its approach to tourism and hopefully make changes for the better.
Our Pick Of The Backpacker Jobs
Another positive of being one of the only backpackers on a Working Holiday visa in New Zealand during Covid-19 is that we have had our pick of the jobs. We have had more job offers in the short time we have been in New Zealand than we have had in our entire lives. There has been no competition from other candidates because we are often the only candidates.
It has meant that we could make a well-informed decision about where we chose to live and work because there were so many options available to us. We have also been able to negotiate our pay with greater bargaining power as we have skills that are in demand. It has been a very privileged position to be in.
Being from the UK where there are hundreds of candidates for one job opening with an abysmal pay rate, I can really appreciate being offered numerous positions with competitive pay rates in New Zealand. I’ve never turned down so many jobs before in my life. What a fantastic position to be in!
However, what has been great for me and my partner has been a struggle for employers.
New Zealand Needs Backpackers On Working Holiday Visas…
New Zealand relies on tourism for a huge portion of its economy. In 2019, over 3.8 million tourists and other travellers visited New Zealand. International tourism made up $16.2bn of the GDP before the pandemic. In the year ending March 2021, the contribution fell 91.5%, to just $1.5bn.
Working Visa holders make up a significant amount of the workforce in New Zealand, and those with Working Holiday Visas are essential to industries such as tourism. During the pandemic, the number of people directly employed in tourism fell by over 72,000. Businesses have been struggling, especially those which are seasonal and make the majority of their revenue in the busy summer season. With the borders now reopening, those businesses are going to struggle even more as they try to cater to incoming tourists but without the staff to do so.
There are not many of us left now, the Working Holiday Visa holders who entered New Zealand before the pandemic really began. Immigration New Zealand has extended our visas for free, 6 months at a time, about 4 times now. The extensions have been because New Zealand is beginning to realise what an asset Working Holiday Makers are in the country. Backpackers bring so much value to the economy. Not only do we travel and explore New Zealand but we also work here, fill critical job shortages (mostly the jobs that New Zealanders themselves don’t want to do) and we pay taxes. We contribute so much to the country that without us they have struggled so much.
…But They Are In Danger Of Losing Them
For me, what began as a 1-year Working Holiday has turned into a 3+-year Working Holiday (and counting). But that’s also the thing – it’s a Working Holiday. It will end at some point, and I will be replaced by someone else on a Working Holiday Visa.
As much as I have enjoyed living and working here, I do not see a future for me in New Zealand, and New Zealand’s new immigration policies make it very difficult for people like me to stay, even if I wanted to. Immigration New Zealand has seemingly realised the importance of migrant workers and extended our visas again in an attempt to try to keep us here, but for many, it is too little too late. Announcing the extensions just a few weeks before visas are due to expire is not conducive to encouraging people to stay.
Thousands of Working Holiday Visa holders have already left, unable to cope with the uncertainty of whether they will be granted another extension again, or have just grown tired of New Zealand and have headed to explore another part of the world.
The Future Of New Zealand’s Tourism
New Zealand is in danger of alienating budget travellers and Working Holiday Visa holders. The country’s tourism minister has said he wants to attract so-called “high-quality tourists” and not those who “travel around our country on $10 a day eating two-minute noodles” (actual quote). This is so short-sighted and elitist.
Given that the country’s borders have been closed for years, you would think that New Zealand would be grateful to have anyone heading here for a holiday. Besides, the research shows that budget travellers contribute far more to the economy (and less damage to the environment) than wealthy tourists. I am glad that Professor James Higham, a professor of tourism at Otago University, was able to weigh in with his views and facts in this article! To this, I wholeheartedly agree, as it matches my own experience as a budget traveller to New Zealand. Having been here as a tourist for more than 2 years, I have spent thousands on travelling the country, particularly to remote and isolated areas off-the-beaten-track.
Travel in New Zealand is about so much more than luxury Queenstown AirBnBs with magnificent mountain views or West Coast helicopter rides onto fascinating (and retreating) glaciers. It’s about respecting the stunning natural environment, immersing yourself in Maori culture, discovering New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna species, and so, so much more.
The best experiences I’ve had in New Zealand have been for free – swimming with rare Hector’s Dolphins in Curio Bay, encountering a Little Penguin inside a cave on a deserted beach near Dunedin, seeing glowworms in their natural habitats, relaxing in natural hot springs in the forests outside of Rotorua, marvelling at the majestic mountains and glaciers in Aoraki Mount Cook… I could go on and on. You cannot put a price on the unique travel experiences that New Zealand has to offer.
Travel To New Zealand Now & Have It Almost All To Yourself
Only 2,000 Working Holiday Visa holders have entered New Zealand since the borders reopened. In September 2022, the country still feels very much as it has been for the last two and a half years.
You may travel along the highway on a usually popular tourist route and not see another vehicle for hours on end. Campsites and motels are empty or closed down. You might be the only customer seated for dinner in a restaurant. You can take a hike and not see another person the whole way to the summit and back again. You can visit a natural hot spring and be practically the only person there.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a surreal and interesting time to travel in New Zealand. I have been able to experience it from a whole new perspective. I have no idea what it is supposed to be like. I cannot even imagine it in any way other than how it has been.
The backpackers will return, I suspect come September or October when the summer ends in the northern hemisphere and the summer begins down here. More than 16,000 Working Holiday Visas have been approved by Immigration New Zealand, they just need to enter and begin their journey.
There will come a time when New Zealand is back to pre-Covid levels of tourism, with the queues, the noise, the rubbish and the crowds. But until then, I will keep enjoying it. And for you, there is no better time than now to travel to New Zealand. We must enjoy it while it lasts!
Being A Tourist In New Zealand During Covid-19 – Thanks For Reading!
What has your experience during Covid-19 been like? Did you take any trips abroad? Did you “get stuck” anywhere like me? Let me know in the comments! – Lauren x
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