The idea of migration, an exodus to an entirely new country and culture, was something that I had never properly thought about before. This changed during a four-month trip I took travelling last year, on one fateful day in New Zealand. Some travelling buddies and I were taking a leisurely walk around a Northern township called Paihia, when we happened upon a woman walking her dogs.
After chatting to the woman, it transpired that she was a British ex-pat who had moved herself and her entire family from the UK to New Zealand five years before, on her own personal migration. Research I conducted when I returned to the UK revealed that she was not the only one. 23% of New Zealand’s population were born overseas, and 6.7% are British ex-pats. So of the tiny population of 4.5 million, that’s 300,000 ex-Brits!( stats.govt.nz) My visit to the country left me stunned, awe-inspired and desperately wanting to go back, but migrating there? Moving my entire existence, my past, present, and future as far away from the UK as possible? I’m not sure I could. So what exactly is it about New Zealand that is powerful enough to draw so many of its migrants from the UK?
I posed this question (not quite as precisely), to the woman I met on the beach, and her answer was in equal parts enlightening and bemusing: “Well, it’s just like Britain, but better!” And indeed, one need only log onto the official migration website for New Zealand to see that its tagline reads –‘Fed up of life in the UK?’ (emigratenz.co.uk). Following this, I decided to research the issue further, in the hope of discovering exactly what it was about this country that causes so many Brits to consider moving to New Zealand as an upgrade.
For so many British families to migrate to New Zealand, the education system there surely must play a large part in its attraction. Like the UK, the education system is state funded and according to the New Zealand Education Guide, has an ‘international reputation for providing an exceptional level of education and is increasingly being recognised for its opportunities for study’ (newzealandeducated.com). This was a sentiment that the dog-walking woman seemed to share, as she informed us that her kids had “never been more enthused about or comfortable at school” than they had been since starting their New Zealand Education.
Unlike the UK, New Zealand is home to only 4.5 million people (dol.govt.nz), a startling figure, considering that the two countries are similar in size. In fact, more people live in London -7.5 million, (london.gov.uk) than the whole of New Zealand. It could easily be argued that this results in an overall better quality of life, less over-crowding, less unemployment, and less homelessness, all of which are very real problems in the UK today. For example, the unemployment rate in New Zealand in September 2011 was 6.6% (dol.govt.nz), compared to the 8.3% in the UK during the same period (google.com/publicdata). The tiny New Zealand population also, unsurprisingly, leaves numerous areas of the country uninhabited and therefore unspoiled. This became evident to me during the hour-long bus journeys I took through the rolling countryside without passing a single vehicle, even on major roads.
Perhaps then it is the pure, unaffected, physical beauty of the country that proves to be such an intoxicant. Before I left for my trip to New Zealand, I was told by a number of people who had previously visited that New Zealand looks like ‘Britain in the 60s’. I could only assume that what was meant by this was that it represents how Britain used to look before it was ‘ruined’ by city expansion, the introduction of more motorways and general over-population. Of the 4.5 million people who live in New Zealand, two thirds live in the North Island, one third in the major city of Auckland. Due to this vastly uneven distribution of inhabitants, the South Island is widely considered, certainly by all tourists that I met, and myself, to be home to some of the most visually stunning, completely untouched areas of natural beauty in the world. Sprawling out in every direction is endless, azure, glistening blue water, the ripples on the surface accentuating dazzling white caps of the colossal mountains that surround its perimeter. Lush, green vegetation is scattered across rocks by the water’s edge, lapped continually by the placid movements from within the lakes. Views of equal beauty I have simply never experienced. But how can this possibly be likened to the landscapes we are used to in the UK?
According to the New Zealand Visa Bureau, it is not the landscapes, but the cities and towns of New Zealand that provide such a home-from-home experience for British ex-pats, likening Christchurch in particular to English cities such as Cambridge and Bournemouth, due to its ‘medieval cathedral squares, streets named for Anglican dioceses, and squares named for Anglican reformers’ (visabureau.com/newzealand). In my experience, the northern coastal towns of New Zealand also have a certain resonance with British seaside resorts, with their quaint buildings, golden sands, ice cream parlours and fish ‘n’ chip shops, the most obvious difference being the strong New Zealand accents of the locals milling around. However, considering the population in 1960s Britain was still around 53 million (google.com/publicdata), it cannot be that the lower levels of inhabitants that New Zealand boasts now can be compared to the population levels in the UK back then. New Zealand was, even in the 1960s, very much less populated than the UK was, being home to only 2.8 million (nzhistory.net). So perhaps it is that the densely populated areas of New Zealand are comfortingly familiar to the British ex-pat who chooses to migrate there, but the numerous expanses of unpopulated and unspoilt beauty act as a further attraction that is not readily available in the UK.
So, perhaps what draws so many Britons to New Zealand is an idealised dream of having the best of both worlds: a great quality of education, a high standard of living and low levels of social problems -such as unemployment and homelessness- against a stunning backdrop of breath-taking natural splendour, with the home comforts of England in the towns and cities. The language, the food, the climate, and the level of affluence are all still present; but mixed with an imagined better quality of life. Perhaps it is the union of these two factors that brings such a vast number of British ex-pats to migrate and begin a new life as citizens of New Zealand. Although, it should be considered, that the more Brits who migrate halfway across the world, leaving behind their roots and relatives in the UK in order to call this country their new home, the more the British influence will be palpable, and the less the unspoilt areas, not to mention the New Zealand native cultures such as that of the Maoris, will be a part of modern New Zealand life. It seems that in order to be an ex-pat, one should do what the label implies and leave one’s former country behind, in order to be fully immersed in a new one, regardless of the similarities between the two.