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The 10 Best Ecotourism Experiences in New Zealand

Picture of Joe Coates
Updated: 20 August 2018
New Zealand was ripe with activities for the ecotourist, long before the term ecotourism became a fashionable buzzword in the travel world. However, if you’re after that sustainable travel experience of a lifetime, then New Zealand is one of few countries that offers so many options in such a small locale. Here are our top 10 picks for New Zealand ecotourism experiences.

Tongariro Crossing

Natural Feature
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Middle Earth
Tongariro Crossing | © Harry Lund / Flickr
Made famous in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings as Mordor, the Tongariro Crossing offers one of the most beautiful day hikes you can do in New Zealand. This is the country’s oldest national park and the area provides an awe-inspiring view. While hiking to the center, you will see unique landforms along the 19.4-kilometer (23-mile) adventure, along with hot springs, old lava flows, water-filled craters and spectacular views. Hiking here really is like walking through a fantasy land, or perhaps across the surface of Mars.
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Accessibility & Audience:

Family Friendly

Atmosphere:

Touristy, Instagrammable, Photo Opportunity

Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve

Natural Feature
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Camo fish
Poor Knights Islands diving | © taquimans / Flickr
Abandoned long ago, the Poor Knights are restricted from public usage. This isn’t just because of the insane abundance of beautiful flora and fauna, but also due to a Maori curse — or tapu — that was laid upon the area when the last Maori tribe left. But while the islands are off limits, the waters offshore have secured their position on many an eco-adventurer’s bucket list. Established as a marine reserve in 1981, Poor Knights has become one of the world’s top diving sites, offering those who descend into its depths a pristine marine environment and an architectural playground of volcanic rock to explore.
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Accessibility & Audience:

Family Friendly

Services & Activities:

Guided Tours

Atmosphere:

Touristy, Outdoors, Scenic, Photo Opportunity

Wai-O-Tapu

Park
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Rotorua is well-known for its volcanic and geothermal features, and Wai-O-Tapu is the most famous of the lot. This natural attraction is located just 27 kilometres (16.8 miles) south of town. Go to the ampitheatre at 10:15 a.m. to see the Lady Knox Geyser put on a spouting show, then spend the rest of the time marvelling at New Zealand’s largest mud pool and the unique hues of the Champagne Pools and Devil’s Bath in the geothermal areas.
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Mon - Sun:
8:30 am - 5:00 pm

Accessibility & Audience:

Family Friendly, Accessible (Wheelchair)

Services & Activities:

No Smoking, Entrance Fee

Atmosphere:

Photo Opportunity, Touristy, Outdoors

Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Park, Natural Feature
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The Milky Way
The Aoraki Reserve | © catnthehat / Flickr
A rugged landscape of rock and ice forged by continual tectonic movement below, this prehistoric landscape is littered with turquoise lakes, snow-capped mountains and gargantuan glaciers. Established as a national park in 1953, the park now incorporates 70,696 hectares of spectacular mountain terrain. The dark sky reserve of Aoraki Mackenzie was the first to be designated in the Southern Hemisphere and remains the world’s biggest. The reserve recently gained a gold status for being almost entirely free of light pollution, allowing dazzling starlight to shine out against a pristine, inky-black sky.
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Whakaari / White Island

Natural Feature
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Just short of 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) offshore of Whakatane on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand lies White Island. It is home to a lunar landscape of crystalline craters, sulphur-stained cliffs and a noxious lake of vibrant colors. It is the only submarine volcano left in New Zealand, and since 2002, it has been in a constant state of unrest. It may look from afar like this arid landscape is somehow dusted with snow on its upper peaks, but this white covering is the result of the country’s largest colony of gannets and the droppings they subsequently — and rather messily — cover their home in.
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Services & Activities:

Guided Tours

Atmosphere:

Outdoors, Photo Opportunity, Scenic

Kaikoura

Natural Feature, Park
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Fluke
What a whale of a time | © Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr

Located a few hours’ drive north of Christchurch, the picture-perfect seaside town of Kaikoura is known for its laid-back vibe, eco-friendly attitude and stunning location, where rugged mountains meet stunning seascape. The town boasts rich Maori culture, even down to its name; Kaikoura is Maori for ‘eat crayfish’, which is the town’s culinary specialty and can be bought freshly caught and cooked at local food trucks and restaurants. Hike the Kaikoura Mountains for breathtaking views over the coast and don’t miss out on a boat trip out of Kaikoura. The town offers some of the best whale, dolphin and seal-spotting in the world.

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Accessibility & Audience:

Family Friendly

Services & Activities:

Guided Tours, Rentals

Atmosphere:

Touristy, Outdoors

Fiordland National Park

Natural Feature, Park
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Fiords
It's unbelievably beautiful in Fiordland | © Pedro / Flickr
If you want to catch bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, penguins and keas — the world’s only alpine parrot — in their natural habitat, then you better get yourself to one of the most remarkable places, not just in New Zealand, but in the world. Fiords are u-shaped glacier carved valleys, which have been flooded by the sea, and Fiordland National Park has 14 of them; Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are the most famous. Some of these fiords can be explored by kayak, which lends them an even greater majesty.
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Accessibility & Audience:

Family Friendly

Services & Activities:

Guided Tours

Atmosphere:

Scenic, Instagrammable, Photo Opportunity, Outdoors

Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers

Natural Feature
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FJ
View from the Franz Josef Glacier | © edwin.11 / Flickr
Due to rapidly receding ice levels, New Zealand’s famous Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers can only be reached via helicopter. These scenic flights come with plenty of memorable highlights, though, from the fresh landings on the snow to thrilling glacial hiking opportunities. Most tours offer an incredible flight over the glaciers before touching down on the ice. This experience is followed by a three-hour walk in a frigid world that feels more like a movie set than anything else. You might have to pay a decent bit of money to take this trip, but it’s a fair price and the astounding beauty of it will stay with you forever.
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Services & Activities:

Guided Tours

Atmosphere:

Outdoors

Waitomo Caves

Natural Feature
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Inside the Waitomo Glowworm Caves | © Carsten Arsten / Flickr
Out of all of New Zealand’s glowworm grottos, the Waitomo Caves are the most accessible. They are located on the North Island within a short drive from major cities like Auckland and Hamilton. This is a place for all kinds of glowworm-loving explorers; you can go on guided caving tours, leisurely underground cruises or get involved in an array of adrenaline-inducing activities like black water rafting and abseiling.
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Accessibility & Audience:

Family Friendly

Services & Activities:

Guided Tours

Atmosphere:

Outdoors

Walk the Milford Track

Natural Feature
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Waterfall
An example of the beautiful waterfalls that bloom when it rains | © Jocelyn Kinghorn / Flickr
This is New Zealand’s most famous track, and a right of passage in this part of the world for those who are keen on trail walking and hiking. It’s a manageable length at 53 kilometers (32 miles), meaning that you can cruise along it and set up camp for a few days, then take in the scenery as you go. And boy oh boy, what scenery! The pristine lakes and alpine forests are most beautiful when it rains and the waterfalls grow in intensity as they cascade down the granite mountain ridges.
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Services & Activities:

Free

Atmosphere:

Outdoors, Photo Opportunity, Scenic