‘Just keep telling your story’: Whangārei urged to capitalise on new-found tourism reputation

The Hundertwasser Art Centre, along with other new developments along the Hātea River, has breathed new life into Northland’s arts scene, says travel publisher Lonely Planet. Photo / Northland Inc

The best thing Whangārei can do to capitalise on its new-found reputation as a cultural tourism destination is to “just keep telling its story”, a regional tourism leader says.

A new guide to New Zealand which was released this week by Lonely Planet, the world’s biggest travel publisher, marks a seismic shift in the way the city is being perceived.

Long dismissed as a pit-stop on the way to the Bay of Islands, Whangārei is now “a stand-alone destination in its own right” boasting a raft of architectural and cultural attractions, according to the authors of Experience New Zealand.

Tania Burt, destinations manager for Northland Inc, said changing perceptions of the city also reflected a change in what travellers were looking for.

“What Whangārei has done, with its arts precinct and the development in the Town Basin, including the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery and Hihiaua Cultural Centre, has shown New Zealand and the world we have an arts scene. When people think of Northland, they think about the ocean, beaches and natural beauty, but they don’t necessarily think about our Māori culture and our arts… The development is changing the way people see Northland,” she said.

The experiences Whangārei offered were not available anywhere else and, importantly, they were relevant to the area.

“Hundertwasser had a vision [for Whangārei] and it was carried out. It’s the same for Hihiaua Cultural Centre. There’s a vision, and there’s a connection to that particular place,” Burt said.

“Globally, we’re seeing a mindset shift for travellers. People want something deeper – they want to understand the layers beneath a destination. The best thing Whangārei can do is keep telling its story of people and connection to place.”

Hihiaua Cultural Centre Trust secretary Janet Hetaraka says it’s important to keep up the momentum behind projects transforming Whangārei. Photo / Tania Whyte
Hihiaua Cultural Centre Trust secretary Janet Hetaraka says it’s important to keep up the momentum behind projects transforming Whangārei. Photo / Tania Whyte

Recognition for Whangārei as a destination in its own right has also delighted the people behind Hihiaua Cultural Centre, with trust secretary Janet Hetaraka saying she’d long thought of the city as a “well-kept secret”.

She hoped Whangārei would come to be seen as the gateway to the North — not just to the Bay of Islands, but also to destinations such as Manea Footprints of Kupe in Ōpononi, Ngāwhā Springs near Kaikohe and Ka-Ūri in Awanui.

The most important thing now was to keep the momentum going by continuing the “fantastic” support Hihiaua had already received, Hetaraka said.

The trust was currently raising money for the second stage of the project, which would include a performance and exhibition venue, mainly for Māori performing arts.

So far, Whangārei District Council had committed $5 million in its Long Term Plan, while Kānoa, formerly the Provincial Growth Fund, had pledged $3m. A funding application had also been lodged with Foundation North.

The public would see the first steps early in the New Year when renovations started on the former A’Fare restaurant, now known as Manaaki.

“Just watch this space,” she said.

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