By Steve Kelman

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Greetings from New Zealand

steve kelman

I arrived for the first time in the Auckland, New Zealand, airport after a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles -- to give some lectures at Victoria University in Wellington -- and switched over to the domestic terminal for a short commuter flight to the tourist resort town of Rotorua (pronounced, weirdly for an American, something like "Roto Rooter," the clogged-drain company). Having arrived from the United States early, I was able at the last moment to switch to an earlier flight. I took my mostly full bottle of water, which I had been planning to drink on the wait for my connecting flight, and threw it in a garbage pail before entering the departure area -- only to discover there was no security checkpoint at all to get on the flight. It was an out-of-body experience. Just get on the plane.

I later discovered that several years ago Prime Minister Helen Clark eliminated security checks on domestic flights where the planes have fewer than 80 seats. Seems a bit risky to me -- couldn't New Zealand become a sort of hijacker magnet? -- but so far, no problems. (I was also told that on Australian domestic flights one may bring bottles of water aboard.)

So this place is different. First, it is very small, with a population only a bit over 4 million. Second, it is far away -- some 1300 miles from the eastern coast of Australia, not to speak of other places. (If you look at the map, you will be surprised to see that it is at almost the same longitude as Hawaii.) Third, the whole country is along major earthquake faults, which is obvious just looking at the many hills and outcroppings formed by seismic activity long ago, but also visible in thermal pools -- literally smoking, bubbling, and smelling of hydrogen sulfide from activity just under the earth's surface -- in places such as Rotorua.

When you're so far away and so small, how do you support yourself where transport costs for trade are high and you don't have enough of a population to reach effective scale domestically for a lot of production? If you're New Zealand, you get a lot of tourists to observe your natural beauty and partake of your emptiness. (Today, more Chinese visitors, for whom the emptiness is a real attraction from their crowded country, come to New Zealand than do Americans.) And you develop niche export industries, traditionally lamb and wool, but now increasingly replaced by cow production for dairy, to sell infant milk powder to China, to parents who prefer powder produced in a place with clean air and strong regulations missing in China.

You also need to prepare to adapt. One of New Zealand's first major tourist attractions, in the late 1800's, was beautiful silica steps in a beautiful pink and white color, formed by a lake through millennia of water and sediment movement. The steps, though, were destroyed when a 1886 volcano eruption covered them. The area proceeded to reinvent itself as a spa location, taking advantage of the thermal pools and mineral-filled waters.

More recently, New Zealand, traditionally almost more English than England, has transitioned to a self-image as a bicultural nation with a large Maori Polynesian minority, a group much larger than aborigines in Australia and much more present in society, including with government buildings that display signs in Maori as well as English.

In all, this place is far away, but it's delightful.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 12, 2014 at 12:53 PM


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