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What is an UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Tourism NZ

Unesco World Heritage Sites in New Zealand.

Throughout the pages of any glossy New Zealand brochure or even on this website itself you will often see parts of New Zealand described as a “World Heritage Site”. It’s a pretty grand title, that’s for sure, but what does it mean exactly? Why should we care?

In short, a World Heritage Site is a landmark or area that has been officially identified by the United Nations on the basis of having cultural or significant importance. As of 2017, there are 1052 listed World Heritage Sites and three of them are in New Zealand: Te Wahipounamu, Tongariro National Park, and the Subantarctic Islands. These areas of cultural and natural significance sit among world-famous landmarks from the Pyramids of Egypt to the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti.

So find out what are the World Heritage Sites in New Zealand, what is it that makes them awesome, and why it is such a privilege to be visiting these places.

5 Things you can’t miss in New Zealand’s World Heritage Sites

When you do these activities, you are doing them in an area of cultural/natural significance recognised on a global scale.

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United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are a branch of the United Nations that identify World Heritage Sites. UNESCO is made up of 195 member states that “seeks to encourage
the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”

A Brief History of Unesco World Heritage Sites

After World War One, years of campaigning saved culturally significant landmarks such as the Abu Simbel
temples in the Nile valley in Egypt and the historic city of Venice, eventually lead to establishing the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This convention means that those sites listed as a World Heritage Site must be protected by those in the “international community” without prejudice of national ownership.


UNESCO encourages participating countries to nominate potential heritage sites in order to set up management plans, technical assistance and training to help conserve these sites. They also provide emergency assistance to any World Heritage Site in immediate danger.


Tongariro National park World Heritage Area

Tongariro National Park was given Duel World Heritage status in 1993 thanks to its mix of cultural and natural significance. It is one of only 29 sites in the world with this “duel” status.

It’s active volcanoes topped with vibrant tranquil lakes, desert-like plateaus, and a mix of forests and alpine shrublands not only considered worthy of World Heritage status because of their natural beauty but also provide a huge significance to the local Maori iwi (tribes). The volcanoes of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro feature in Maori legends, thus having huge spiritual significance to the Maori.

Things to do in Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park is a protected area but can be visited for recreational purposes like hiking the Tongariro Circuit Great Walk or taking the day hike over the Tongariro Crossing. Not to mention all the short walks in between leading to waterfalls and stunning volcanic landscapes. Mountain bike trails, ski fields and white water rafting can also be done in the area. For more information, check out Tongariro National Park – Guide for Backpackers and Ruapehu – Guide for Backpackers.

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Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage Area

As the largest world heritage site in New Zealand, Te Wahipounami covers a whopping 2.6 million hectares encompassing the national parks of Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki Mt Cook, Fiordland and Mt Aspiring. Te Wahipounamu was given World Heritage Status and is considered one of the great natural areas of the world because the environment takes us back to 80 million years ago when New Zealand was part of the super-continent, Gondwanaland. As a result, this created an environment of rare vegetation and wildlife, such as the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea, flightless birds such as the takahe and kiwi birds. The area also holds some of the finest examples of glaciated formations in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as ancient stands of beech and podocarp forests.

Things to do in Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site

Thanks to its enormous area size, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Te Wahipounamu. Do a heli-hike onto the glaciers of Franz Josef, Fox and Tasman. Delve into the forests of Fiordland National Park with a wealth of hikes to chose from and emerge out at sea from Milford or Doubtful Sound. Take a jet boat ride from the ocean to the mountains in the Mt Aspiring National Park or kayak, fly or hike around the glacier formations in the shadow of New Zealand’s highest mountain in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.

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The New Zealand Sub-ANTARCTIC Islands

Made up of Snares, the Bounty Islands, Antipodes, Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands lie south-west of New Zealand in the Southern Ocean. They are given World Heritage Status thanks to the incredible wealth of wildlife species living on these islands, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. Notably, these islands have a large population of penguins and other seabirds.

Things to do in the Sub-Antarctic Islands

Unfortunately for us (but fortunately for the wildlife), the Sub-Antarctic Islands are not exactly an easily accessible backpacking destination. The area is highly protected. Expedition voyages take passengers at infrequent times of the year (usually around December-January) from Invercargill and Bluff at the bottom of the South Island. For bird-lovers and wildlife-nuts, it’s a dream adventure!


Other things worth mentioning

Now you know all about New Zealand’s World Heritage Sites, how about learning more about what makes New Zealand special!

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