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Queenstown New Zealand's Tiny Bigtime Town


Queenstown is a tiny rural town in the wilds of the South Island of New Zealand. It advertises itself not only as the nation's "Home of Adventure" but as the "Adventure Capital of the World". Small and remote though it may be, Queenstown packs a punch well above its weight as New Zealand's scenic playground for outdoor sports fans and adventure seekers.

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand.
Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

Queenstown is so remote that the early pakeha (i.e., European) settlers were able to access it, in the 1850s, only with guidance from local Maori. The original settlers took up farming, but Queenstown took off as a settlement in the 1860s with the discovery of gold in the nearby Arrow River. (Arrowtown, the centre of that particular gold rush, is about 17 km north-east of Queenstown as the crow flies.)

Queenstown is on the edge of New Zealand's third-largest lake, Lake Wakatipu. Being on this very scenic lake and with the Remarkables mountain range on to its south-east, Queenstown offers a variety of stunning views. It is this awe-inspiring natural beauty that drove today's tourism boom, and made this tiny town, with only about 16,000 residents, one of New Zealand's most famous places.

Mountain scenery, Queenstown, New Zealand.
Mountain scenery, Queenstown, New Zealand.

The same beauty has furthered the town's fortunes not only via tourism, but as a movie location. Lake Wakatipu featured in a 2007 film, posing as Loch Ness! And it was also a setting for several Lord of the Rings movie scenes.

Some of Queenstown's fame (or, in this case, infamy) is fueled by its astronomical house prices. Queenstown currently has the highest average house price of anywhere in New Zealand, at $1.21 million - a stark indicator of just how desirable a stake in Queenstown is considered to be.

Kawarau River rapids, Queenstown.
Kawarau River rapids, Queenstown.

Also, remarkably, Queenstown Airport was until recently New Zealand's fourth busiest airport, with direct flights not only from New Zealand's other major airports, but even from cities in Australia.

So, how did this tiny, remote New Zealand town make it into the global spotlight?

Kawarau Bridge, Queenstown, where bungy jumping began.
Kawarau Bridge, Queenstown, where bungy jumping began


When it comes to tourism, Queenstown was originally a destination for hikers on the Milford Track, or several of the other famous tramping trails in the Otago region. It was also a place for visitors going by coach bus to the stunningly beautiful Milford Sound in Te Wahipounamu to stop over at.

Then, in 1947, one of the biggest names in New Zealand tourism, Sir Henry Wigley, built a ropeway for skiing on Coronet Peak, turning nearby Queenstown into a winter destination as well.

The next landmark year for Queenstown tourism was 1960, when jetboating (a New Zealand invention) opened up the Shotover River canyons to tourists. Jetboating was followed by white water rafting on the Shotover and Kawarau rivers, in 1974. Meanwhile, in 1967, the southern-hemisphere's steepest gondola cableway was completed, taking passengers on a scenic ride up Bob's Peak.

Bungy jumping over the Kawarau River, Queenstown.
Bungy jumper over the Kawarau River, Queenstown

Bungy jumping - perhaps Queenstown's most famous adventure thrill - became a tourist fixture of the town in 1988. It was soon followed by tandem paragliding and tandem skydiving, helicopter rides, zip-lining, parasailing, kite skiing, and abseiling.

Tourist mecca

Queenstown's gondola ropeway, with off-road cyclists.
Queenstown's gondola ropeway, popular with off-road cyclists

Before COVID-19, struck, Queenstown was receiving tens of thousands of overseas visitors every month, overwhelmingly from Australia. For example, in August 2019, Queenstown Airport alone received 39,200 overseas visitors, not including the thousands of other tourists, domestic or international, who arrived there by means other than air. 

2018 saw 3.3 million visitors to the town, and it is estimated that, on average, at any given time pre-COVID-19, there were 34 overseas tourists per local Queenstown resident. The strain on local infrastructure is one issue that has concerned the people of Queenstown, and two years ago they voted in a non-binding referendum to impose a 5% bed tax on visitors (a proposal since shelved because of the coronavirus).

Impact of coronavirus

Hotel construction in Queenstown pre-COVID-19.Hotel construction in Queenstown pre-COVID-19

The coronavirus epidemic has dealt Queenstown's economy an enormous blow, with domestic tourism not coming close to filling the now very underused town's tourism facility capacity. This is in spite of a surge of New Zealanders from other parts of the country to Queenstown, drawn by the extra space from the lack of international tourists. Mayor Jim Boult describes the impact of COVID-19 on Queenstown as an "economic earthquake" as at least one major hotel has temporarily closed its doors to await better times.

But better times may not be just around the corner, as prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, indicated just last week that the ban on international travel to New Zealand will probably continue throughout 2021.

Maori legend about Lake Wakatipu

Looking over Lake Wakatipu from a Queenstown hotel.
Looking over Lake Wakatipu from a Queenstown hotel

Finally, for a Maori legend about how Lake Wakatipu, which Queenstown is at the edge of, was formed.

Matakauri was a young commoner who longed to marry the beautiful Manata, a young woman of high status, and she him. But Manata's protective father prohibited the marriage. Then, one day, Manata was abducted by a giant by the name of Matau. So, Matakauri approached Manata's father and offered to rescue her, asking if he could have her hand in marriage if he succeeded. The father assented, and Matakauri set off into the mountains on his quest.

Matakauri knew that when a warm north-west wind blew, it meant Matau was asleep. So, he waited for that wind and eventually got so close to the giant Matau that he could hear the imprisoned Manata weeping. He found her tied up, attached to the giant with a magic rope that, try as he might, he couldn't cut. Manata begged him to go in case the giant awoke and killed him. He refused and tried cutting the ropes all the harder. Manata cried all the more, but her copious tears melted the magic rope, and she was free.

Lake Wakatipu from the Queenstown gondola ropeway.
Lake Wakatipu from the Queenstown gondola ropeway

Matakauri and Manata returned to her father, who gave them his blessing, and they married. However, they feared that the giant would one day come looking for her. So, again, Matau ventured into the mountains, found the sleeping giant, and set fire to the bed of bracken he was sleeping on. The giant curled up his legs in pain and was quickly overcome by the heat and smoke. His body sank deep into the earth creating a massive hole which soon filled with snow, melted by the fire, from the surrounding mountains. Only the giant's heart survived and continues to beat. So that's why the lake you see today is in the shape of someone crouching, and why its water level rhythmically rises and falls by 200 mm every 26.7 minutes (due to its seiche).


Queenstown's i-SITE is in the Clocktower Building on the corner of Shotover and Camp Street.

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