It took 13,000 miles, a 24-hour flight and a 12-hour time difference to make good our escape from a depressed and leaden Europe to sunny, easygoing Middle Earth. The contrast could not have been greater and our spirits lifted with the first 'Gidday'.
Clean, green, pristine New Zealand. And it is really true. There is a genuine commitment to the environment and to bio-security in this spectacularly beautiful country. When we entered New Zealand at the end of last year to do a little fly-fishing on the renowned rivers around Lake Taupo, our boots were minutely examined by immigration officials and one pair confiscated as a bio-hazard. I was given a serious and fairly public dressing down as to the severe risk my brand-new, felt-soled wading boots would pose to the environment in the form of some hideous, polluting algae called 'didymo'. I had never thought of myself as a potential bio-terrorist before and humbly handed them over rather than risk a hefty fine.
The upside of such environmental vigilance was apparent some days later when tackling the impressive four-day Milford Track, one of the world's great walks, and we were proudly encouraged by our guides to fill our water bottles direct from the icy mountain streams. In most other national parks around the world, this would be an invitation to serious tummy issues. However, in a country where there are no indigenous mammals, other than a couple of bats, and all non-native wildlife is ruthlessly eradicated, the waterways outside farming areas are largely pure.
An unspoilt natural environment is New Zealand's greatest asset. Not only because of tourism, which employs about 5% of the population and contributes NZ$23bn (£11.6bn) to the national coffers but also because 70% of the country's energy needs are met from natural and sustainable resources. More than 55% of New Zealand's electricity is generated from the many fast-flowing rivers and vertiginous waterfalls. Geothermal and wind together are the other major clean energy sources. There is no nuclear industry and little use of coal.
Despite this, New Zealand has one of the highest per capita rates of greenhouse emissions in the world. Unlike most developed countries, this does not arise from polluting factories or excessive use of fossil fuels. Instead, it is overwhelmingly due to the country's large numbers of 'belching ruminants'. I was irresistibly and irreverently reminded of Westminster when told about this, but, rather than boring politicians, it is cows and sheep that produce so much hot air. So much so that a 'fart tax' was proposed but it was blocked by the farming lobby. It remains a real challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without reducing agricultural output.
Agriculture, particularly dairy farming, is the most important economic force in New Zealand but is frequently seen to be lacking in ecological values and often in direct conflict with the Kiwi green agenda. Hugely efficient and non-reliant on government subsidies, it is nevertheless often accused of polluting rivers, deforestation and the destruction of natural habitat, together with a massive overuse of water for irrigation. The dairy sector is dominated by the huge farmers' co-operative Fontera, which accounts for about 30% of the world's dairy exports and is New Zealand's largest company. Fontera, which has close contacts with the current centre-right national government, was involved in the notorious contaminated milk scandal in China where powdered melamine was found to have been added, causing the deaths of several babies and children. Nevertheless, the industry does appear to be trying to put its house in order and is engaged in a number of important environmental initiatives in an effort to throw off its 'dirty dairying' image.
Last year was a tough one for New Zealand, with a mining disaster, an oil-spill and a destructive earthquake in Christchurch. While none of these compared in seriousness with those in Chile, the Gulf of Mexico or Japan, in a small country of 4.4 million people, the cumulative effect was significant. Victory in the Rugby World Cup was a much-needed boost to the national psyche, although the contribution of the tournament to tourist revenues was debatable. While there appears to have been some increase in the locations where matches were played, overall there seems to have been a decline. This may have been due to the world economic downturn but many commentators question the value of event-led tourism, as rugby-inspired visitors spent little money on accommodation or in restaurants, preferring to hire one of the thousand Winnebagos imported from Australia for the occasion and to self-cater. There also seems to have been a distinct negative effect, in that many visitors were put off from visiting at all because of the World Cup. Might a similar effect be felt in the UK in Olympics year?
New Zealand is a lovely country to visit for a holiday, whether you enjoy the excitement of the activities such as bungee-jumping, white-water rafting or heli-biking to be found in Queenstown, the self-styled 'adrenaline capital of the world', or the quieter thrills of fishing and trekking in more remote parts. However, it is a long way from everywhere and there has been an enormous outflow of talented, qualified young people. As part of the Kiwi diaspora myself, I recognise that the challenge for New Zealand is how to hang on to this human capital, as it is proving difficult to keep them down on the farm.
- Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director on various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.