New Zealand: travel, tourism, and grace

In a land of spectacular natural beauty, much of tourism is packaged, commercialized, and designed to reduce the elements of surprise. The best moments come unexpectedly, and not necessarily at a park, mountain, or beach.
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A beach at Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand

In a land of spectacular natural beauty, much of tourism is packaged, commercialized, and designed to reduce the elements of surprise. The best moments come unexpectedly, and not necessarily at a park, mountain, or beach.

I am just back from nearly a month Down Under, a week in Australia and almost three in New Zealand. It was my first visit to both. I spent the time in the company of my daughter, a 2009 Whitman grad. She took a month off between two short-term (three month) jobs.

Before our month together she had been a genuine cowgirl, working on a 4,000-head cattle ranch in Queensland, Australia. Her new assignment takes her to work for a racehorse trainer in the New South Wales province, closer to Sydney. (Yes, she likes horses.)

As we traveled I found myself thinking some about the differences between travel and tourism. They overlap, of course, but they aren't the same. Being a traveler, at least for me, has about it something of the unplanned. You don't know beforehand what or who you'll encounter. You are reliant, in some measure, on the kindness of strangers. There's at least the hint of danger, but also the experience of grace, of delights and wonders that come as gift, unexpected.

Tourism, on the other hand, seems designed to, if not eliminate then reduce the elements of danger and the unexpected. But in doing that something else — grace — may be lost as well.

Tourism is a major part of the New Zealand economy, and the Kiwis are feeling the effects of the world-wide recession as they are not getting the number of visitors they would under other circumstances. I don'ꀙt know that I've ever been in a country better organized for tourism than New Zealand. Every city and town, and quite a number of lesser hamlets, has an "I-Site," or tourist information office, staffed by knowledgeable people. From any I-Site anywhere you can book tours or accommodations everywhere else in the country. Quite convenient.

But, at least in the most touristed locations, Queenstown, Fiordland National Park, the Glacier country, Abel Tasman Park, it seemed that there was no escaping the packaged tour or the planned "adventure." This is partly to protect the natural resources, which New Zealand does quite well. But also tourism in its modern form tends to turn most everything into a product to be consumed.

Each I-Site has a wall or two of brightly-colored brochures, touting everything from bungee-jumping (which has roots in Queenstown) to high-speed jet boat river trips, from a guided visit to filming sites for "Lord of the Rings" movies to a trip to a farm to see sheep get shorn. You can be taken fly-fishing, whale-watching, wine-tasting, hang-gliding, or hot-air-ballooning. "Adventure combo" packages were also available, allowing you to do para-sailing, jet-boating, and canyon-swinging all in a day, or even an afternoon.

While it might have been just the thing for me to be harnessed up and swung across a canyon, there's something a little artificial (and quite expensive) about these "adventures." There's a way in which a breathtaking natural setting, say Queenstown, Wanaka, or Kaikoura, becomes another Disneyland. I found this a bit depressing.

Nevertheless, the unexpected delight does still happen. After kayaking on a misty morning in the Abel Tasman National Park, we set off on foot with a Kiwi gal who wanted to do some hiking and welcomed company. As we enjoyed the songs of New Zealand's many birds, we hiked to Cleopatra'ꀙs Pool, a lovely rock formation on a fresh water stream deep in the Abel Tasman. On the way, we got acquainted with this mother of three, who operates a fish and chips shop on the North Island, and is herself an immigrant from South Africa.

Our last stop was in Christchurch, the South Island's largest city, population 440,000. The Avon River circles a downtown that is centered on the Christchurch Cathedral and commons around it. Because it was raining we enjoyed the many fine (and free!) museums and galleries of Christchurch, including the Contemporary Art Museum, the Christchurch Museum and the Arts Centre, which included galleries, theaters, cinema, and shops.

It was in the latter, surprisingly, that I caught the hint of grace that seemed lost amid the brochures and for-purchase adventures of some other stops. The Arts Centre of Christchurch is located in what once were Christchurch College and the High Schools for Boys and Girls. It's a lovely complex of Victorian Gothic buildings and courtyards, a warren for artists and their galleries. We took in a performance of Chekov'ꀙs "The Seagull," and saw a wonderful New Zealand film, "Boy," a coming-of-age story about a Maori boy in love with Michael Jackson.

The Arts Centre was more than we had bargained for or imagined, great buildings filled with a seemingly endless array of beautiful surprises, and a kind of grace.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.