OPINION: I arrived in New Zealand in February 2020, my plans were ambitious and perhaps a bit naive. My partner and I bought a campervan within five days of arriving, planned to smash both islands in a few months, and were excited to see Southeast Asia during the winter months. We’d return for a full summer season, seeing the best of New Zealand.
Enter the coronavirus pandemic. Hopes of jetting off to avoid New Zealand’s lacklustre winter – or so I thought – fell by the wayside. Plans to rush around the country transformed into excitement over the simplest post-lockdown activities, like getting coffee with a friend. (Granted, that coffee was brewed and served in beautiful Golden Bay, so who am I to complain?)
As is the case for the many thousands of backpackers still here, my original fervour to explore this beautiful country coalesced with a newfound, deep appreciation for the place that cared for us during a truly terrifying time to be far away from home. As New Zealand reopened, the backpackers hit the ground running – but this time, there was no rush.
If I left, I didn’t know when I’d be able to return. I didn’t know when I’d be able to travel anywhere again, let alone New Zealand. If I left, I’d be returning to a home that looked nothing like the one I knew.
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So I took my time, exploring as much of the country as I could, stopping in towns for weeks rather than days, getting to know locals and doing the best walks in the area. I made time to visit the homes of Kiwis I’d met while travelling, learning more about New Zealand life each time.
Now, about a year and a half later, I’m returning to my home country of the United States in a quite unique situation. My friends and family are almost all vaccinated, cinemas are reopening, and the prospects for summer travel are looking good.
Life is on its way back to “normal”, just in time for my partner and I to get home, see family, search for jobs, attend weddings. I’ll return to a reality eerily similar to the one I’m leaving now, where the possibility for spontaneous travel, meeting new friends, and going to concerts aren’t taken for granted.
But I’m also leaving a place I never thought I’d call home. During my time here, I’ve been welcomed into a loving Kiwi family, forged meaningful and lasting friendships, and discovered enchanting secrets of this land. I’ve spent as many days living life like a typical backpacker, camped up with five other vans for days on end, as I have living life like a typical Kiwi, listening to tui, socialising in huts, learning as much te reo Māori as I can.
As I say farewell to New Zealand, I have a complicated sense of gratitude and protectiveness toward the country. I see monumental change coming when New Zealand opens its borders to the people who have been reading about Jacinda Ardern’s leadership, mid-pandemic Six60 concerts, and van life daydreams all year.
I understand – perhaps more than the average New Zealander – the way the rest of the world, or at least the US, sees this country. “The Scandinavia of the South Pacific,” “where they filmed Lord of the Rings,” and “the place that beat the pandemic” all come to mind.
Conversely, I also understand New Zealand much better than the average traveller who aspires to come here, and I know how much those quips miss about life in this country. I’ve come to understand the challenges New Zealanders face, from the housing crisis to Māori land rights to threats to native birds and bush. I’ve also gained a voice here – one that writes op-eds about freedom camping, tells people not to feed the kea, and criticises Labour’s shortcomings.
This is the gift that New Zealand gave me this year. I never intended to spend so long in this country, to drive from Cape Reinga all the way to Rakiura and everywhere in between. And for that, on behalf of the other backpackers who sought refuge in the safest place on earth these last 16 months, I apologise. Because the opportunity to know New Zealand has forever changed the way I’ll travel, and has etched a koru in my heart that will never go away.
With this comes indescribable heartache for the country New Zealand is right now, because I know this moment is fleeting. When the borders open to the rest of the world, I know there will be folks just like me, who intend to come here for a short while, take, and leave. There will be no incentive for them to stay longer and get to know New Zealand better, for all its quirks and oddities, especially as the tourism ministry pushes travellers like me further and further away.
But I’m also filled with hope for change in the ever-important tourism industry that currently places so much importance on international travellers. I think of the Nelson locals I met on the West Coast who were discovering the region for the first time. I reminisce about the blend of Kiwis and foreigners who made amazing friendships throughout a winter in Wānaka. I remember the stories of my friends who raised their kids in a house truck as they travelled the country in the 1980s.
These stories give me hope, because they remind me that the most important travellers in New Zealand are not the ones from one place or another, one economic class or another.
The most important travellers to New Zealand are the ones who care to know it. So, my heart-wrenching goodbye is two-fold – a deep appreciation for this place and its people, and a hope that New Zealand sees the value in the ones who stayed.