The world’s biggest democracy has quietly overtaken China, writes Chris Pritchard, to become New Zealand’s number-one source of immigrants, foreign students and, in the near future, tourists

India’s government forecasts 50 million Indians will take trips out of their homeland each year by 2020, and New Zealand, with an eye on enormous spending power, wants a slice of this tempting pie.

The tourism industry is extremely important to export-oriented New Zealand, accounting for 16 per cent of the South Pacific country’s export earnings and growing. What’s more, Hindi has become the fourth most commonly spoken language after English, Maori and Samoan.

Of New Zealand’s population of 4.5 million people, about 175,000 are of Indian descent. Growth of New Zealand’s interest in India doesn’t indicate any downgrading of the relationship with number-one trading partner China, which continues to enjoyed undiluted importance. In fact, China remains second only to neighbouring Australia as a tourist source.

Nonetheless, with little fanfare the picture has changed: the East Asian giant has been leapfrogged by even stronger growth from India, a phenomenon the New Zealand government welcomes while still continuing its cultivation of China.

Times have changed since New Zealand’s earliest Indian immigrants left Punjab and Gujarat in the 1890s. India and New Zealand remained mutual low priorities for many years, despite both being former British colonies with high profiles in the Commonwealth.

Arrivals on student visas are counted among immigrants to New Zealand and, indeed, 72 per cent of Indian students (currently numbering 23,000) say they’ll apply to stay permanently in the country, which is widely perceived to have easier entry hurdles than most others. Many arrivals from Australia are ex-New Zealanders who became Australian residents but have opted to return to live in the land of their birth.

Having supplied 12,600 immigrants to New Zealand last year, India is way ahead of China, which is in second position with 8200. Next come the Philippines (4500) and Britain (4000). Chinese students formerly formed a majority of overseas enrolments at New Zealand educational institutions but now Indians are more numerous, confirms Chris Gosling, chief executive of Wellington Institute of Technology.

Indians report encountering little discrimination in New Zealand. Instead, they’re viewed very positively, says Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, a member of parliament who is the country’s first Sikh MP and belongs to the governing National Party. He adds that Indian employees are seen as ‘dutiful and dedicated to their work. Indians don’t call in sick’.

In the case of students, the nation’s reputation for high-quality education has spurred its popularity. Like some other countries, New Zealand regards the selling of education as an important earner of foreign exchange. Educational institutions consider foreigners’ fees as a source of additional income. New Zealand is English-speaking, a plus in attracting Indians. What’s more, Indian parents have often been quoted as praising the country’s emphasis on student discipline. They also highlight its low crime rate.

While Chinese property buyers have garnered plenty of publicity (some of it negative), the Indian influx has attracted much less media attention.  Most Indian arrivals have settled in or near Auckland, the country’s commercial hub, while significant smaller numbers also live in Wellington, the capital, and are spread through the country. One survey found that 72.1 per cent of residents of Mission Heights – an Auckland suburb a half-hour drive from the city – described themselves as Asian, many of them Indian.

A minority of New Zealand’s Indians comes from the South Pacific island nation of Fiji, to which their ancestors travelled from India during the British-colonial era. Fears about political instability have led to a continuing Indian exodus from Fiji. However, most of New Zealand’s Indians come directly from India, where heavy promotion of tourism and education has built awareness of the country.  The filming of several Bollywood movies in New Zealand has also helped.

New Zealand is accurately perceived as an unthreatening pacifist nation, a small country concentrating on increasing its residents’ prosperity. A word about the common descriptor ‘small’: New Zealand certainly appears so on maps, but in global terms it is actually a mid-sized nation. While it appears a minnow when viewed beside vast Australia, some of its island neighbours are mere pinpricks by comparison. It is a mainly agricultural country of wide open spaces, including scenic wildernesses. The economy is doing well. According to the World Bank, it’s now one of the easiest places on earth to start a business and ranks second for ease of doing business. In a Forbes magazine survey, New Zealand scored third among attractive places to conduct trade. Corruption is almost unknown. As the OECD notes, New Zealand was formerly one of the world’s most regulated economies but those days are gone.

When Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited New Zealand earlier this year, meeting many Indian New Zealanders, he signed deals aimed at boosting tourism and also inked an air services agreement. Aviation commentators think direct air links between the two countries are likely within a few years. Meanwhile, travellers must transit Asian capitals or Australia.

Official statistics reveal 30 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP is attributed to exports, with dairy products, meat (lamb and beef) and tourism topping lists of export industries. India’s main imports from New Zealand are dairy products and meat and it exports mostly rice and textiles to New Zealand. Trade between the two countries is growing strongly, admittedly from a low base. President Mukherjee believes both countries recognise the attractiveness of expanded ties. Indians, according to the country’s president, are only now ‘getting acquainted with the stunning natural beauty of New Zealand’.

Prime Minister John Key, leader of the centre-right National Party for the past decade, says ‘New Zealanders of Indian origin make an important contribution to business, cultural and sporting life’ of their new homeland. Around 174,000 Indians live in New Zealand, of whom 23,000 are students.

Indians are prominent in New Zealand’s professions, particularly accountancy, law and medicine, but the community is spread across many occupations. For instance, researchers found 227 of 269 dairies – as New Zealanders call convenience stores – in the Auckland area are Indian-owned. (They are called dairies because they were initially purveyors of milk, butter and cheese.  But their role expanded to include many foodstuffs and cleaning products. Some are now even licensed to sell alcohol. It’s regarded as a tough business and is commonly family-staffed to keep down overheads.)

Among high-profile Indians is a former governor-general, Sir Anand Satyanand. As the Queen’s representative in New Zealand (which, though independent, retains the British monarch as head of state), he held office until his retirement 2011. The Auckland-born Catholic son of an Indo-Fijian doctor, he is best-known in New Zealand for attempts to broker an end to a racial divide in Fiji between indigenous Melanesians and Indo-Fijians. A former lawyer, judge and ombudsman, he has welcomed closer ties with India.

As Robert Barker, chairman of the India New Zealand Business Council puts it: ‘New Zealand businesses need to take that extra step to tap potential opportunities (in India)’. It’s a message India’s President Mukherjee echoed on his visit, telling New Zealanders that opportunities in India are ‘huge’ and that more New Zealand businesses should investigate India ‘as an investment destination’. A common gripe in New Zealand’s business community is India’s cumbersome red tape but recent dumping of some regulations has been positively commented upon.

At the grassroots level, the self-styled ‘land of the long white cloud’ is developing an increased awareness of India and its raised profile on the Asian stage. The two countries knew little of each other two decades ago but New Zealand’s Indians are building their influence and promoting closer links.

Sydney-based Chris Pritchard has travelled widely in the Asia-Pacific area – including Fiji and its neighbours. He has visited many countries in Africa and South America but these days concentrates mainly on Asia where he follows political developments closely and is a frequent visitor. He is a former Wall Street Journal and BBC correspondent.

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