All you need to know about New Zealand - The good, the bad, and the ugly
We love New Zealand and have lived there for several years as well as travelled the country extensively. We’ve come to know it really well and believe we can paint you the whole picture of what it’s really like.
New Zealand truly is a country like no other, with friendly people and a great work/life balance, but behind its incredible first impression there are some less pretty things going on as well. In this blog post we tell you all you need to know about New Zealand - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
New Zealand consists of two big main islands, aptly named the North Island and the South Island (you’ll find that New Zealand isn’t great at coming up with original names for places and roads), and about 600 smaller islands.
The size of the country is comparable to that of the United Kingdom, but with a population of only five million people compared to the United Kingdom’s 66 million, New Zealand isn’t densely populated at all. Out of these five million people, more than 1.5 million live in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city.
When you venture outside of the bigger cities you can often drive for hours without seeing another human being, but while the country isn’t crowded at all, it does receive almost four million tourists a year. Most of these tourist come to admire the countries natural splendour and hit more or less the same hotspots, so depending on the season certain popular locations can get really, really busy.
If you’d like to explore New Zealand in an authentic way, visit the hotspots that are actually worth the buzz while also making time to enjoy some of the hidden gems, we recommend you check out our North Island and South Island itineraries. They both come in a 2 and 3 week version.
New Zealand’s scenery is breathtaking
New Zealand might be the most scenic country in the world, with so much diversity that you find a different breathtaking view around almost every corner.
In the middle of the North Island there is the Taupo super volcano with the 616 square kilometre big Lake Taupo as its flooded caldera and the stunning Tongariro crossing hike and Mt. Doom at it’s feet. Nearby Rotorua still remains geothermally active to this day. You might have heard about the almost symmetrical volcano Mount Taranaki, visible from hundreds of kilometres in any direction, standing proud in the middle of its own peninsula. Or you might have seen photos of the breathtaking Cathedral Cove.
Then, in the middle of the South Island stands the impressive Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain with the unbelievably blue Lake Pukaki at its foot. Milford Sound is often dubbed as the 8th wonder of the world and you won’t believe its beauty until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. Close to Queenstown and Glenorchy there is a place that is literally called Paradise. These are just some of the incredible locations in the land that Peter Jackson used to bring the Lord of the Rings books to life.
New Zealand is an incredibly beautiful country and a great place to live and travel to. From gorgeous sandy beaches to rugged coastal cliffs, from wide open green plains to volcanoes and massive snow-capped mountain ranges full of glacial lakes, from dense rainforests to rolling hills and impressive waterfalls, New Zealand’s got it all!
The wildlife in New Zealand is incredible
Then there is the wildlife, which just as impressive as the scenery. New Zealand is home to many amazing and rare bird and marine wildlife species.
We know, bird watching doesn’t sound exciting and we thought the same thing when we came to New Zealand, but that quickly changes when you see massive royal albatrosses sweep over your head, or when you see the extremely cute little blue penguin hop out of the water and waddle to its nest. The list of rare bird species just goes on and on, and then there are of course the famous kiwi birds. They do exist, we’ve seen them!
The marine wildlife is something you’ll definitely get excited for. New Zealand is one of the best countries in the world to see wild dolphins, and there are many species to see too. There’s the Hector’s dolphin, which is the rarest and smallest dolphin in the world, orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and in Kaikoura you can see superpods of up to a thousand dusky dolphins at a time!
There are also loads of seals, often with adorable little pups, and sea lions. New Zealand is also home to stingrays and great white sharks, hammerhead sharks and other shark species. Depending on the season, you can see sperm whales, humpback whales, and if you’re lucky even humongous blue whales.
The only downside is that New Zealand’s waters are very cold, so most of the time you can forget about jumping in without a proper wetsuit.
There are no dangerous animals in New Zealand
You’re probably thinking “but didn’t you say that there are sharks in the water, they are super dangerous!” Yes, there are sharks in New Zealand’s waters, but you’re more likely to get injured by a sheep than to get attacked by a shark, so unless you’re bleeding and decide to jump in the water with a big, hungry shark, you shouldn’t worry about that either.
In our opinion, the most hazardous animal that you can encounter on land is a swarm of sandflies. They are extremely annoying and their bites itch like hell, but they’re in no way dangerous.
The people in New Zealand are extremely friendly
Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves, are a mix of mainly European and Polynesian descent.
The Polynesian Māori people were the first occupants of New Zealand, until Britain colonialised New Zealand in 1840. Māori culture has greatly influenced New Zealand’s culture as a whole. This is noticeable in the way kiwis speak but also in how friendly and hospitable they are. This come from Manaakitanga, which loosely translates into hospitality and is central to Māori society.
People in New Zealand will greet you on the street, are sincerely interested in how you are, and they love hearing about your travel plans and will likely give you some additional travel recommendations too. And when you see a police car rolling up this doesn’t necessarily mean trouble, as policemen often just stop for a chat and a laugh.
New Zealand has a great work-life balance
New Zealand ranks really high in work-life balance satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that the people here don’t work hard, quite the opposite actually as New Zealanders value working hard and getting ahead greatly, but finding the right balance is at least as important.
The great work-life balance in New Zealand is aided by many employers allowing for flexible working conditions. Often you’re allowed flexible start and finish times, or you get certain deliverables in a week, and once those are met, you’re allowed extra time off. This way Zi often went kitesurfing during her lunch break. Some companies have even introduced four-day workweeks and found that both productivity and work satisfaction amongst their employees increased.
What also helps is that Kiwis have a high standard of living and are usually very active in their free time. They meet up with friends for barbeques, practice sports or go for trips in nature. You’re not a true kiwi if you don’t go camping, love hiking or at least own a jetski.
New Zealand is very safe
New Zealand is about as safe as it gets. In basically any report you can find, New Zealand is in the top 5 in overall safety. New Zealand has a really low crime rate, especially when it comes to violent crimes. If you apply basic safety precautions like hiding your valuables, keeping some spare money in a safe place and letting people you trust know where you’re going, as well as use your common sense, you have very little to worry about.
New Zealand caters really well to travellers
New Zealand recognises that tourism brings in a big chunk of the country’s yearly income and therefore tries to make travelling the country as easy as possible. There are fantastic facilities available, parking at most attractions is free and everything is really well signposted.
Camper vans really are the best way to explore New Zealand and you’ll find it very easy to travel this way. For starters, there are hundreds of government run campsites made available throughout the country, there are picnic areas and free toilet facilities everywhere and you can even find free warm showers in some places.
New Zealand also has a very streamlined administrative system and isn’t very bureaucratic, so it is super easy to arrange stuff like a Working Holiday Visa, a tax number and a bank account. To make things even better, ACC, the scheme that covers medical costs and loss of income in case of accidental injuries, also applies to visitors.
Book your accommodation in New Zealand here:
New Zealand is very remote
New Zealand is the most isolated land mass in the world (other than the poles). While this can be seen as a bad thing, for now we consider it a good thing.
While writing this article, the whole world is in the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where most Western countries are hit hard, the COVID-19 impact in New Zealand is very mild. Because of its remoteness, New Zealand was able to respond quickly, with mandatory quarantines for visitors, followed by closing their borders. This combined with the low population density made isolating very effective and greatly reduced the impact of COVID-19 on New Zealand.
We often joke that New Zealand is the perfect place to survive the apocalypse. It’s just far enough that no one will bother attacking it and isolated enough that it can survive any pandemic.
Based on everything we’ve told you so far, New Zealand sounds like the best country in the world, right? While New Zealand is a great country, there are some aspects that are less than ideal.
There’s an ozone hole above New Zealand
New Zealand is very close to the hole in the ozone layer. While the ozone hole isn’t just caused by New Zealand but by chemicals used by the whole world, New Zealand is one of the countries that is most affected by it due to its close proximity.
The lack of ozone means that the sun’s UV rays don’t get blocked effectively, which greatly increases the risk of getting sunburnt and causes other types of skin damage, including skin cancer.
On top of that the earth’s orbit takes New Zealand closer to the sun in summer than countries in the northern hemisphere, and there is less air pollution in the southern hemisphere to weaken sun strentgh, which is mainly a good thing but does increase the danger of UV rays.
This all means that even if it isn’t warm outside and even on gloomy overcast days, you should still wear sun protection because otherwise you’ll still get sunburnt in no-time. The good news is that the hole in the ozone layer has been getting smaller in the past decade, and is estimated to be completely closed in 50 to 60 years.
New Zealand has lots of seismic activity
New Zealand lies smack on top of the border of two tectonic plates that are moving in seperate directions. The moving of these plates pulls New Zealand apart by about 40 millimeters per year, but also cause lots of seismic and volcanic activity.
New Zealand gets close to 15.000 earthquakes per year. Only about 150 of these can be felt, and most of them have little impact, but some of them cause massive amounts of damage.
You probably heard about the Christchurch earthquake of 2011 that took 185 lives and caused insane amounts of damage to the city. Even now, nine years later, parts of the city are still being repaired and rebuilt.
In 2016, an even stronger earthquake happened near Kaikoura. This earthquake lifted parts of the coastline by almost 6 meters and destroyed big parts of the main north-south highway, forcing traffic to take a detour for several years until the highway was repaired.
There are active volcanoes in New Zealand
There are 12 active volcanoes, and many more dormant ones in New Zealand. These volcanoes, like Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) and Mount Taranaki (The Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit) look awesome, and the geothermal hot springs around Rotorua and Taupo are a lot of fun, but they are not without danger.
New Zealand’s volcanoes don’t erupt that frequently, but when they do the eruptions are often abrupt and violent.
The most recent eruption (at the time of writing) was in December 2019 on White Island when 47 people were on the island. 21 of them were killed by the eruption and the other 26 people suffered severe injuries.
We already mentioned the incredibly big Taupo supervolcano. The last time it erupted was 1800 years ago, and it was the world’s largest volcanic eruption in the last 5000 years. The chances of it erupting again are very small, but if it does it would destroy practically the whole North Island.
New Zealand is expensive
Even though wages in New Zealand are relatively high, it is still an expensive country to live and travel in. Especially the prices of food, alcohol, fuel and accommodation are disproportionately high.
You’d think that real estate prices would be reasonable with such a low population density, but they are actually through the roof (pun intended). Even though it seems that there is a lot of empty land in New Zealand, most of the land is actually either part of national parks or privately owned, leaving very little land to build on.
This leads to the price of land being very high, and on top of that the local government imposes high taxes on the infrastructure that comes with developing real estate, forcing housing prices up even more.
The housing quality in new zealand is poor
As if the high real estate prices weren’t bad enough, the quality of houses in New Zealand also aren’t exactly up to the standards in most other Western countries, especially when it comes to insulation.
Up until a few decades ago, houses in New Zealand were primarily built out of wood because wood was in abundant supply, and other building materials were hard to come by. Wood doesn’t insulate very well and nowadays a lot of people still live in these older, poorly insulated houses.
On top of that, double glazing has only been made a standard for new builds in 2008, so most of the houses built before that only have single glazing which doesn’t insulate well either. With New Zealand’s temperate climate this means that in winter it can get really cold inside.
Then there is the heating, or better said lack of heating. Less than 5% of New Zealand homes have central heating. Instead, most people opt for a heat pump which can also serve as an air conditioner for warmer days. The main problem with a heat pump it only warms up one room instead of the whole house, leaving the other rooms in the house cold and damp.
The internet in New Zealand is slow
If you’re from Europe, the USA or from developed countries in Asia you won’t believe how slow the internet in New Zealand is. There are only a couple communication cables going through the Pacific Ocean and New Zealand is right at the end of them, causing very limited data speed.
The areas with a low population density (basically everywhere besides the big cities) have very weak reception, or often even no reception at all. Coverage is getting better, but progressing very slowly. To give you an idea how slow; the town of Haast on the South Island’s west coast wasn’t introduced to mobile coverage until May 2018.
But hey, at least you can use a digital detox as the perfect excuse for a New Zealand road trip!
New Zealand is very remote
Wait, didn't we already list this as a good thing? Yes we did, but we also mentioned that it can be seen as a bad thing.
Because New Zealand is so remote, it is very isolated. The closest country to New Zealand is Australia, which is 2300 kilometers and a four hour flight away. To put this in perspective, that is the same distance as in between Oslo in Norway and Barcelona in Spain.
Not only does it take ages to get to another country, because distance are so big it also costs a small fortune. If you’re not originally from New Zealand this can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation and homesickness.
New Zealand’s remoteness also adds to the country being so expensive. New Zealand doesn’t have the natural resources to produce all of their goods themselves, so they rely heavily on trade with other countries. Because of the big distance, imported goods come at a much higher price.
We’ve spent several years in New Zealand and have come to known its uglier traits too. While we’re not trying to put New Zealand into a bad light, we do feel that it is important to mention these things to give you a better idea of what goes on in the country. We still love it despite all this!
Alcohol abuse is a serious issue in New Zealand
There is a big drinking culture in New Zealand and close to 85% of its people drink. While drinking in itself is not necessarily a problem, the frequency of it and the amount people drink is.
Out of the people who drink it is estimated that 60% regularly drink too much, making alcohol abuse the biggest health problem in New Zealand. The negative impact of alcohol abuse on the health of individuals is already bad enough, but add the harm it does to their communities and you start to grasp how big the problem truly is.
Over a third of all criminal offences in New Zealand are committed by people who are under the influence of alcohol. Domestic violence is a common occurrence too, stipulated by alcohol abuse. Drunk driving is common and often results in accidents.
There are country-wide campaigns against drinking and driving, bars can get extremely high fines for serving alcohol to intoxicated people, many local governments have banned drinking in public places and police often sets up road blocks and testing stations to catch drunk drivers, but unfortunately the problem doesn’t seem to get smaller.
There is a lot of depression in New Zealand
Depression rates in New Zealand, especially among young people are alarmingly high and suicide rates among teenagers are the highest out of all developed countries in the world.
One in six people in New Zealand have been diagnosed with depression at some stage in their lives, but the real number is estimated to be even higher as many people don’t seek help and thus do not get diagnosed.
Kiwis are brought up to act tough, to not talk about feelings and to not show weakness. The phrases Kiwis have no fear or I’m a Kiwi, I’m tough are something you’ll likely hear people from New Zealand say more than once. This makes for great rugby players (New Zealand is the best in the world in rugby after all) but also makes that a lot of people feel too proud to seek help, feel they should push through or are afraid they won’t get the support they need.
New Zealand is not as eco-friendly as you might think
You might find this strange to read because New Zealand is such a green and beautiful country. Besides protecting their national parks, New Zealand doesn’t take care of itself that well ecologically speaking and there are some serious environmental issues.
The agriculture sector is the biggest sector in New Zealand, generating most of its income, but laws to keep agriculture eco-friendly are lacking and farmers are encouraged to produce as much as they can. These overcrowded farms, the spraying of pesticides and not dealing with animal waste properly leads to pollution of the land, ground water and connecting waterways.
A lot of New Zealand’s rivers, including the Waikato River which is the country’s longest river, are not safe to swim in. To make matters worse there is massive deforestation to make room for more farms, and marine ecosystems are in danger due to overfishing.
Is New Zealand worth it?
Yes, yes, and a thousand times more yes. When you add all the pros and cons New Zealand comes out on top by a mile! It is an incredible country and if it wasn’t so far away from everything else we would still be living there.
The scenery and wildlife are incredible, unique and something you really have to see for yourself. We’re sure that a trip to New Zealand will be the experience of a lifetime.
If you still have any questions or doubts, don’t be shy and let us know in the comments!