Skip to main content

New Zealand’s tourism sector now has a bright new star to encourage international visitors to these shores – Ngāi Tahu Tourism’s recently opened Dark Sky Project in Tekapō.

New Zealand’s international tourism market might not be growing at the same breakneck speed it has over the past five years, but the industry is still New Zealand’s largest export earner with total annual tourism expenditure of $39.1 billion and annual international tourism expenditure of $16.2 billion.

The Statistics NZ Tourism Satellite Account for the year ended March 2018, which was issued in December 2018, shows the industry contributes 21 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

While international visitor numbers have now slowed, they are still growing. The latest figures from Statistics NZ in early August say that the total number of international visitor arrivals into New Zealand for the year ended June 2019 was 3.89 million, up 2.7 percent on the previous year.

However, Statistics NZ noted this was the slowest annual growth in a June year since 2013, down from a peak of 11 percent in the year ended June 2016.

The industry sees that it is in a new phase, according to Chris Roberts, the chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa. “A period of rapid expansion from 2013 saw tourism firmly established as our country’s biggest export sector. That growth spurt has ended, the visitor market has softened and the outlook is more uncertain,” he says in a recent media release.

One of the largest players in the tourism sector is Ngāi Tahu Tourism, which is playing a major part in growing our international visitor numbers.

It already hosts more than one million customers a year across 14 iconic businesses, including Shotover Jet, Guided Walks New Zealand, Dart River Adventures, Franz Josef Glacier Guides, Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools, Hukafalls Jet, Agrodome, Rainbow Springs and Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters

And, in conjunction with joint venture partners Graeme Murray and Hide Ozawa (founders of Earth & Sky) it has just opened a new $11 million complex on the Takapō lakefront (Takapō is the name Ngāi Tahu ancestors recorded for the Tekapo region) which it is billing as the new home of astronomy “offering the world’s first indoor, multimedia experience that combines Māori astronomy and science”.

Ngāi Tahu Tourism is owned by Ngāi Tahu, the biggest iwi by population in Te Waipounamu (the South Island). It has more than 60,000 registered members, making it “one of the largest whānau-owned businesses in Aotearoa,” according to its website.

Takapō is in the middle of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – the largest dark sky reserve in the world and the first to receive gold status. Since the region was declared a reserve by the International Dark Sky Association in 2012, it has experienced something of a boom in astro-tourism from international and domestic visitors keen to experience a clear night sky, an increasingly rare commodity in today’s world.


The vision

In 2016 Ngāi Tahu Tourism became a 50 percent owner in the famous astro-tourism experience Earth & Sky, with co-founders Murray and Ozawa. And over the past three years the partnership has developed its new 1140 square metre building on the Takapō lakefront, renaming the company the Dark Sky Project.

As to where the big vision came from for the project, the two founders wanted to create something that would become a drawcard for the region and put astronomy right at the heart of Takapō.

“When we wanted to see our dream come to life, we knew we had to seek external help to make that happen. Ngāi Tahu Tourism was the perfect partner for us. We loved their values and family (whānau) culture, which was incredibly similar to ours,” Dark Sky Project co-founder Graeme Murray told NZBusiness.
“We knew that together we could develop something world class that’s unique and authentic to our region and our people. We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved together – and it’s only the beginning.”

Ngāi Tahu Tourism chief executive Quinton Hall said at the time of the opening in early July that the new building, called Rehua, will be a key facility in the Mackenzie region, ensuring the hundreds of thousands of people who transit through Takapō can enjoy the lakefront dining and an astronomy experience in any weather conditions.

“Dark Sky Project will add significant value to the region as more places around the world lose sight of their stars and visitors seek out places like Takapō where they can look up at the clearest, darkest skies,” Hall says.

He told NZBusiness that entering into the joint venture presented the opportunity to create an authentic experience that would bring to life stories about the night sky and the region in a way that had never been done before.

“To do this, we worked closely with mana whenua (Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua, Te Rūnanga o Waihao and Te Rūnanga o Moeraki), the University of Canterbury, and leading expert in Māori astronomy Professor Rangi Mātāmua. We were looking to create something that genuinely and seamlessly blended Māori astronomy and science, including some of the fascinating research undertaken by the University of Canterbury at Mt John Observatory.”


Roadmap in the sky

Hall says there has been a lot of interest in the Māori astronomy content in the new Dark Sky Experience, particularly as part of the experience is based around the concept of a Te Whare Tātai – a school dedicated to teaching Māori knowledge about the cosmos.

Professor Rangi Mātāmua explains that Maori ancestors established their own astronomical houses, or whare tātai, “where they learnt the movements of the night sky, the sun and the moon, the celestial objects and what they meant to us here on earth. This building is a place where people can come and learn about the celestial objects of the night sky and understand the scientific and cultural meaning and purpose, and what they mean to us today.”

Background material provided by Ngāi Tahu Tourism says that Māori used the sky as a roadmap, “not only to mark place and understand where they were, but also to mark time and seasonality so they knew when the fish were running, when the birds were big and fat, and when the soil was fertile and ready for planting. The sky is central to the Māori calendar and our seasonal way of life”.

The new building also includes a large observatory dome which houses the 125-year-old Brashear Telescope.

This stands up to nine metres tall and was in storage for five decades before being restored in Fairlie over the past two years. The Victorian masterpiece is part of the new 45-minute Dark Sky Experience.

The centre also includes the Dark Sky Diner and will be the departure point for the astro-tourism business’s outdoor, evening stargazing experiences.

The funding came from the Earth & Sky Limited Partnership, committing $11 million into the project which includes $3 million in funding from the government’s Tourism Growth Partnership fund.


Sky-high interest

Dark Sky Project business manager, Craig Jones, is responsible for the day-to-day running of the business and he says since the new building opened on July 2, they have had thousands of people visit.

“To celebrate the opening, we offered local Takapō residents one free Dark Sky Experience during July and August to ensure they got the chance to look around and explore the new building and experience. This has been well received and we have had a large number of locals through.

“Inbound tour operators are excited about a daytime experience in Takapō and we are seeing strong interest from some of our wholesalers.”

As to the two co-founders, Hide Ozawa remains an active team member and is often still guiding Dark Sky Project’s Japanese language tours promoting the concept of “Window to the Universe”, and Graeme Murray is a member of the joint board.


Written by Annie Gray, editor of Management magazine. This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of NZBusiness.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


Dishing up export possibilities

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

What’s mine is not yours

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

25 countries… and counting

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012