Learn about New Zealand's UNESCO World Heritage Sites

reflective lake ringed by green mountains

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New Zealand has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but that number is actually somewhat misleading about the amount that can be seen and experienced at these three sites. Unlike in some places where a World Heritage Site might be a single building, like a church, or a complex of ruins, such as Machu Picchu, New Zealand's three designated sites are huge areas. They cover entire landscapes and ecosystems, and include multiple national parks. One is in the North Island (Tongariro National Park) and another in the South Island (Te Wahipounamu) while the third is a part of the country few people visit: the Subantarctic Islands off the southern coast of the South Island.

In addition to these three designated areas, New Zealand contains a number of "tentative" sites. These are, in effect, UNESCO World Heritage Sites "in waiting." They have been nominated for the designation by local bodies and may become fully-fledged sites one day, when certain conditions have been met. These are located throughout New Zealand and are great places to visit alongside the already-listed UNESCO sites.

volcanic mountain rising out of rocky landscape
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Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park, in the central North Island, was New Zealand's first national park, designated in 1894, and became a UNESCO site in 1993. It's one of very few sites in the world that became a World Heritage Site due to its dual natural and cultural importance. The park contains extinct and active volcanoes—Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu, which spectacularly erupted in 1996—which are of cultural significance to the local Maori iwi, Ngati Tuwharetoa. In 1887, chief Te Heuheu Tokino IV gifted these three mountains to the nation of New Zealand, which became the basis of the area's national park status.

In the winter, Tongariro National Park is a popular place to ski. In fact, it's one of the few places in the North Island where you can commercially ski. In the warmer months, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a highly popular day trek. Longer and less busy overnight treks can also be done, and a guide is recommended for navigating this challenging landscape, where weather conditions can change in an instant.

glacier surrounded by mountains and forested hills
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Te Wahipounamu

Te Wahipounamu covers 4.7 million acres of the sparsely inhabited southwestern South Island, including Fiordland, Westland, Mount Aspiring National Park, and Mount Cook National Park. Te Wahipounamu means "place of greenstone" in Te Reo Maori, and it was made a World Heritage Site in 1990.

The dramatic landscape that reaches from inland mountains to the coast includes ice-carved fiords, cliffs, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, snow-capped mountains, grasslands, an extinct volcano, forests containing trees up to 800 years old, and rare birds (such as the endangered Kea, the only Alpine parrot in the world, and the flightless takahe).

Although Te Wahipounamu includes the popular Milford Sound and the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, it is considered one of New Zealand's least-modified landscapes. UNESCO considers the area to be the best intact modern representation of the ancient flora and fauna of Gondwanaland in the world.

birds flying over sea with islands in distance
 JanelleLugge / Getty Images

New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands

The five island groups in the Southern Ocean, between the South Island and Antarctica, are rich with rare flora and fauna and are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although few visitors travel to the uninhabited Subantarctic Islands, it is possible to get there on scientific expeditions or specialist small-group cruises. The five groups are:

  • The Antipodes Islands and Marine Reserve
  • The Auckland Islands and Marine Reserve (not to be confused with Auckland city in the north)
  • The Bounty Islands and Marine Reserve
  • Cambell Island and Marine Reserve, the southernmost of all the islands
  • The Snares Islands, closest to the mainland South Island

The attraction of the islands for potential visitors are the birds (including penguins and albatross) and spectacular wildflowers, and permits are required from the Department of Conservation. Like Te Wahipounamu, the Subantarctic Islands are valued largely because they are some of the least modified landscapes in the world.

grassy hills and long whitesand beach with sea beyond
 Michael Schwab / Getty Images

Sites on the Tentative List

New Zealand's Department of Conservation also categorizes the following sites as "tentative" World Heritage Sites:

  • The Kermadec Islands, northeast of the North Island. They can only be visited with special permission, but are a marine reserve of great importance.
  • Whakarua Moutere, or the North-East Islands, including the Poor Knights Islands that are among the best diving sites in the world.
  • The Kerikeri Basin historic precinct in the Bay of Islands, Northland, one of the first areas of European settlement in New Zealand.
  • The Waitangi Treaty Grounds historic precinct in the Bay of Islands, where the modern nation-state of New Zealand was born through the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown.
  • The Auckland volcanic field that covers much of the greater city of Auckland.
  • The Art Deco precinct in Napier, a stylish area that was born from the great disaster of the Hawke's Bay earthquake of 1931.
  • Kahurangi National Park, including Farewell Spit at Golden Bay, Te Waikoropupu Springs, and the Canaan Karst System, an area of great geological diversity.
  • The seabed and waters of Fiordland (Te Moana o Atawhenua), as an addition to the existing Te Wahipounamu site.

In addition, there is an attempt to have the skies above Aorangi Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, declared a World Heritage Site. The area is already an International Dark Sky Reserve thanks to its minimal light pollution and excellent stargazing opportunities.