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All the important facts about New Zealand (including Māori culture)

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Before visiting this gorgeous country, it’s important to know at least the basic facts about New Zealand to ensure that you understand the culture and proper etiquette. Below we cover essential facts, fun facts, and culture and customs of New Zealand. 

Also check out green hotels in New Zealand and eco-friendly activities for a 2 week itinerary in NZ.

Essential facts to know about New Zealand

  • New Zealand comprises two islands: north island and south island. 
  • New Zealand is known as Aotearoa in Māori language, and it means “the land of long white clouds”
  • The North island is called Te Ika-a-Maui.
  • The South island is called Te Waipounamu.
  • Māori people are the indigenous people of New Zealand, and speak the language known as Te Reo Māori or simply Māori.
  • Māori culture and ethnicity is part of the larger Polynesian family. Over 98% of the Māori people live in New Zealand.
    • The Māori language is different from other Polynesian languages because there were a few centuries after settling into different places where they did not have any interactions. Hence every group developed their own language and culture.
    • There is another group of Indigenous New Zealanders called Moriori, who had settled in the Chatham Islands east of New Zealand. They did not develop fighting skills like the Māori did, who had wars between their different tribes, and hence were easily invaded by the Māori in the 19th century.
    • It is common for Māori people to have tattoos on their faces and body. These tribal tattoos are important to them and are unique to their tribal community, but not everyone decides to get them. There are two ways to get the tattoos: the traditional way (it’s more painful) and the modern way with needles.
  • The official languages of New Zealand are English, Māori, and sign language, although English predominates. Business and education are carried out in English.
  • New Zealand is a very remote country, and was hence one of the last places on earth to have human settlements.
  • The capital of New Zealand is Wellington, which is in the north island.  
wellington, facts about new zealand
Wellington
  • New Zealand has immigrants mostly of Chinese, Indian, Korean, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian and Cook Island descent.
  • Almost half of the population of New Zealand does not practise any religion, but those who do are mostly Christian, with a small minority of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. 
  • One third of the country is protected nature and national parks.
facts about new zealand national park
Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom from LOTR) in Tongariro National Park (Photo by Mike Swigunski)
  • New Zealand did not originally have the venomous insects and reptiles that Australia is known for, despite its close proximity to its neighbour. However, the Avondale spider (or common huntsman) has been brought to New Zealand by accident from Australia.
  • Drive on the left side of the road.
  • The legal drinking age is 18, and there are strict rules against underage drinking.
  • The climate tends to be more temperate in the north island, and is subtropical in the northern area of the north island, while the south island is colder.
  • Tipping is not expected.
  • Local slang in New Zealand:
    • Dairy: a small grocery shop
    • Chook: chicken
    • Togs: swimwear
    • Bach, pronounced “batch”: a holiday home in North Island
    • Crib: a holiday home in South Island
    • Jandals: flip flops
    • Chur: thanks
    • Ta: thank you

Fun facts about New Zealand

  • People of New Zealand are known as New Zealander, or more commonly, as “kiwis”, a nickname they got from their native flightless bird (not the fruit, which is originally from China). 
  • New Zealand’s capital city is also the most southern capital in the world in terms of geographical location.
  • New Zealand is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. 
  • New Zealand is the filming location of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit movies, and the latest show Rings of Power, all based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy books. The movie set Hobbiton is still there and is a major tourist attraction (and worth a visit even if you’re not a fan of the books/movies).
facts about new zealand, hobbiton movie set
Hobbiton Movie Set
  • New Zealand appointed a Lord of the Rings minister in 2001 to ensure the country could benefit from the tourism boom following the movies’ release.
  • The Elvish language is a made up language by J. R. R. Tolkien. In 2012, New Zealand broadcasted a weather report in Elvish.
  • There are a lot of more animals in New Zealand than humans. 
  • New Zealand has many volcanoes, and many of them are still active. The most “popular” eruption as of late was the volcanic eruption of the Whakaari volcano on White Island in 2019 that took many victims.  
  • Bungee jumping is a popular activity in New Zealand.
  • Blue Lake has the clearest water in the world. It is located in Nelson Lakes National Park, and is sacred for the Māori people. You can swim there.
  • The most popular cities are Wellington, Queenstown, Auckland, Christchurch, Rotorua, Hamilton, and Napier. 
Queenstown New Zealand
Queenstown (Photo by Ömer Faruk Bekdemir on Unsplash)
  • New Zealand is quite progressive: it was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote (in 1893), and in 2006 all the highest positions in the country were held by women.
  • Taumatawhakatangihangaoauauotameteaturipukakapikimaungah-oronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu is an actual name, and is the name of a hill in Hawke’s Bay. It means something about a man named Tamatea who had big knees.
  • Watch out for the bird Kea. They eat rubber and are known for pulling windshield wipers off cars. 
  • Popular sports in New Zealand: rugby, football, cricket, golf, netball.
  • Weta is a giant cricket, endemic to New Zealand, and is one of the heaviest insects in the world. 
  • Kiwis have a relaxed dress code and you might encounter people walking barefoot.

New Zealand culture and customs

General cultural etiquette

  • A firm handshake when introduced for the first time is most common.
  • Look people in the eye when talking to them.
  • Personal space is important – an arm’s length distance is the norm.
  • People are friendly and polite and expect the same.
  • Always use a tissue if you need to clear your nose when in a public setting, and never spit in public.
  • Bargaining or negotiating prices when shopping is not common.
  • No always means no, it’s not feign politeness or humility. Most Kiwis are hesitant to say no directly, and would say it like “not sure” or “yeah, no”.
  • Smoking is not common in New Zealand, but if you want to smoke, it has to be outside. It’s also good manners to ask those around you if they mind the smoke.
  • Kiwis smile and greet strangers often when walking past them. It’s polite to respond accordingly.
  • Do not skip lines or push ahead when queueing up. Wait your turn.
  • Punctuality is a must. If you are a few minutes late, give the person a heads up. However if you’re heading to a party it’s ok to be about 15 minutes late.
  • Littering is considered extremely disrespectful.
  • Don’t compare New Zealand to Australia. They are completely different countries and people from either country don’t appreciate the comparison.
  • There’s emphasis on preserving the environment and recycling waste. Tourists are expected to do the same.

Social gatherings and eating out

  • If invited to dinner, always bring a small gift.
  • “Bring a plate” means bring food.
  • It’s acceptable to say yes to an invitation to a party and not go.
  • New Zealanders are friendly and open but do not overshare. Questions to avoid are their salaries, why they are not married or don’t have children, and any other type of personal questions like their weight, age, religion, political beliefs, etc.
  • There is a lot of Māori etiquette that non-Māori New Zealanders have adopted, such as removing shoes before entering someone’s house.
  • Do not criticise someone else in a public setting, even if it’s simply to point out a mistake someone made.
  • Never show up unannounced to someone’s house.
  • Hanging out by getting coffee/tea is the norm.
  • At restaurants, do not wave or snap your fingers at a waiter. Instead, make eye contact and nod your head, or raise your hand to get their attention. 
  • It is common to split the bill and just pay for what you ordered. However when it comes to drinks, it is common to buy rounds of drinks for others, and this is called “shout” – aka when it’s your turn to buy rounds, it’s “your shout”.

Specific Māori culture and customs: dos and don’ts

New Zealand puts a lot of effort into preserving and respecting the Māori culture. The Māoris are not the same group as the Australian Aboriginals, nor are they kin in any way. 

Māori cultural experience in Rotorua (Mitai village)
  • If Māori people consider something sacred (“tapu”), do not touch it or interact with it.
  • Do not bring food into sacred spaces.
  • Do not touch someone’s head without permission as the head is considered sacred.
  • Do not pass food over someone’s head.
  • It is considered rude to sit on dining or kitchen tables and pillows used for sleeping.
  • Always ask permission before taking photos of people.
  • Pounamu (greenstone) and/or bone necklaces are worn by Māori people, and it is not recommended for non-Māori to wear them as this diminishes the cultural importance of the necklaces. However if you have been gifted one by a Māori person then you may wear it.
  • If visiting a marae (Māori space for gatherings and events), always ask permission before entering. Women should wear clothes below their knees. Bring a small gift to the tribal elder, but do not bring food. Arrive early before the welcome ceremony that welcomes visitors starts and make sure your cellphone is off.

FAQs

  • Is New Zealand safe?

New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world, with low crime rates and friendly locals.

  • Can you drink tap water in New Zealand?

Yes, it is safe to drink, and tap water is offered freely in restaurants.

  • Who are the native people of New Zealand?

The indigenous people of New Zealand are the Māoris. They arrived about 1000 years ago from Hawaiki, the original home of Polynesians according to Polynesians mythology. 

  • Is New Zealand similar to Australia?

Despite their geographical proximity, New Zealand is a completely different country from Australia, and it is generally seen as ignorant or rude to compare them to Australia. A stark distinction between the two is the lack of venomous and dangerous wildlife in New Zealand, though there are 3 spiders that have a painful bite.

Final thoughts on New Zealand facts, culture, and customs

New Zealand is a remote but diverse country, with a big cultural influence from Māori people. It is therefore important to know the facts about New Zealand, and understand its culture and customs, before visiting. 

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