As travel to Australasia starts to pick up, New Zealand's 'City of Sails', Auckland, is now on Mideast travellers' radars.
Auckland is becoming increasingly recognised as a base for an exploration of New Zealand's North Island. Most of the island's major attractions are located within three hours drive of the city and Auckland itself offers a multitude of sports, leisure, dining and entertainment options.
Accommodation is broad-ranging, spanning boutique hotels and apartments in the upmarket Viaduct development or at one of the city's five-star hotels, many of which offer unparalleled views of Auckland's two harbours.
If clients are looking to unwind in New Zealand, advise them to take a luxury lodge that is fully catered but very discreet.
The landmark Hilton Auckland is back in business following a refurbishment of its Bow Suites and the introduction of new suites including the Presidential Suite and a Relaxation Suite. The Presidential Suite is available in a one- or two- bedroom configuration with a viewing deck overlooking the harbour, and the Relaxation Suite boasts 160 degree uninterrupted water views across Waitemata Harbour and three separate living zones for working, sleeping and relaxing, as well as a private balcony.
Both are decked out with Italian leather furniture, espresso coffee machines and 32" LCD TVs.
"These suites undoubtedly offer the best vantage point of Auckland," explains Charlotte Seymour, regional PR manager, Australasia, Hilton.
Middle East guests booked 315 room nights at The Hilton Auckland in 2006, and with 354 room nights booked to date this year, Seymour hopes to finish 2007 with 450 Middle East room nights.
"Predominantly our Middle Eastern guests are coming from Dubai, but we received guests from all over the region," she adds.
Seymour says the Middle East is yet to produce the volumes of other market, but this is likely to change as New Zealand becomes more accessible visa-wise than other long-haul destinations like the US.
"As the US tightens up its visa scheme its potential tourists are turning to New Zealand instead," she explains.
"Our Middle Eastern visitors also find New Zealand to be a lot friendlier than the US and so the Middle East is an emerging market for Hilton Auckland."
She says Middle East guests appreciate the hotel's 24-hour concierge and typically booked personalised tours, as opposed to group tours.
According to Tourism New Zealand's manager, UAE, Nicola Cunich, visitors from the Middle East are on the rise, but the year-on-year growth is still only in single digits: "We have had a 6% increase over the summer compared to 2006, and normally it is a 3-4% year on year increase," she explains.
"We're getting about 18,000 visitors from the GCC region per year, and it is steadily growing."
According to Cunich, the key to getting more people to visit New Zealand and making sure they make the most of their time there is to find out exactly what the client wants from the trip before they depart.
"Find out exactly how long the customer has and what they want to achieve, as well as the age of the family, so you can be quite specific about what they do - whether it is a self drive holiday, or they want to base themselves in one spot and explore around that area," she explains.
"For something a bit more removed, go for one of the luxury lodges.
"If clients are looking to unwind in New Zealand, advise them to take a luxury lodge that is fully catered but very discreet, and stay there for a week and organise tours and activities from there."
Auckland and its surroundings are also dotted with Eye Sight Centres, where tourists can book theatre tickets, accommodation, reserve a table in a restaurant, hire a car or book a bus ticket, so agents can advise clients that most of their activities can be booked upon arrival.
But New Zealand isn't just about staying in nice hotels and admiring the view, Cunich points out. The tiny nation is home to the great outdoors, with adventure activities and cultural activities around every corner.
A short ferry ride away from Auckland, Waiheke Island is a top end retreat for luxury travellers. The island is dotted with secluded lodges, many of which offer stunning sea views and a range of outdoor activities.
"New Zealand, at the end of the day, is a touring destination, because it boasts such a changing landscape over such a short distance. But people who want a more relaxed holiday can base themselves in Auckland and just take a number of day trips," says Cunich.
"Agents need to encourage people to get outside of the city. People love the physical part of New Zealand - whether it is a lake or a mountain - but it's the people they meet and the activity it involves that they love."
The Estate in Church Bay on Waiheke Island is a popular retreat for New Zealanders and an increasingly popular destination for small events and weddings.
Owners Julian and Helen Nalepa say they have received numerous visitors from Bahrain, Dubai, Oman, Qatar and the rest of the Middle East.
"We are discreet and totally focused on the client [having been Northern Hemisphere expatriates ourselves for in excess of 20 years], inclusive of a short period in Bahrain," Julian Nalepa explains.
"We have a continuing small stream of Middle Eastern visitors, but no noticeable pick up at this juncture."
The lodge boasts a stunning location with 360-degree sea views and provides easy access to the rest of the island. Activities available include charter fishing, heli-fishing, skydiving, sea kayaking, art tours, vineyard tours and tasting, spa treatments, and direct helicopter access is available to and from The Estate from either Auckland City or Auckland International Airport.
Visitors can find a range of lodge-style accommodation, as well as wineries, local weekend craft markets, and some of New Zealand's finest seafood restaurants, on the island, says Cunich.
"It's quite sophisticated - it's where the wealthy Auckland people go to their private lodges or to their upmarket holiday homes."
Back in the city, The Hyatt Regency Auckland is undergoing a complete refit of all 269 rooms in the Regency Tower, and a complete makeover of the lobby and reception.
"We will be keeping with the heritage of the hotel, but fitting it with the latest technology and décor," explains marketing communications manager Rachael Slack.
"The reception desk will be extended and will become a lot more welcoming for our guests and the lobby will have all new chic furniture to keep the hotel fitting with the five-star accommodation standards."
Work should be complete by November 2008, she adds.
The hotel boasts Auckland's only full service day spa, with professional therapists on hand for massages, facials and body treatments, as well as nutritionists, personal trainers and a swim coach.
The pool area has a retractable roof and collapsible windows to allow staff to control the temperature and conserve energy. The Spa also has a jacuzzi, steam room and sauna.
Starwood has recently made its first venture into New Zealand with The Westin Auckland, Lighter Quay. The 100% non-smoking property overlooks the 172-room Viaduct Harbour and the promenades that lead guests to the nearby shopping and dining districts.
Guests can also enjoy a Senses Spa, wellness centre and gym, three F&B outlets, and 260 square metres of function space.
Another accommodation option is the Sky City Grand Hotel, just across the street from the Sky Tower - the tallest building in the southern hemisphere.
Visitors can go up to the observation desk on the top floor for panoramic views of Auckland and its surroundings. There is also a café and restaurant on the top floor for 360-degree dining.
Auckland also boasts some great shopping, thanks to the plethora of top-notch New Zealand designers that have set-up-shop in the city.
Most top end fashion items are locally designed and locally made, often from locally sourced materials such as wool, but boast cutting edge designs that have wowed the international fashion crowd in recent years.
Top names include Karen Walker, Trelise Cooper, Zambesi, Sabatini White and World, while many newcomers to the country's thriving fashion scene offer good quality unique designs at slightly lower prices.
Souvenir shoppers will also find a gamut of Maori-inspired ornaments and jewellery, as well as Merino wool products covering everything from slippers, scarves and sweaters to high-performance ‘cool wool' outdoor activity wear.
Out of town
There are so many things to see and do around Auckland. North and west of the city are the Kumeau and Henderson wine producing centres; south east are the low-lying Hunua Ranges - a protected stretch of coast that attracts migrating shorebirds; north west are forested hills where walkers can explore the native bush, offering views of the coastal bays; and to the east, the Hauraki Gulf is the city's weekend playground.
In Maori the name means ‘north wind' yet the waters are sheltered and ideal for sailing.
From here visitors can also take day trips to some of the unspoiled islands.
Other attractions within easy driving distance of Auckland are the surf beaches of the west coast and the Tiritiri Matangi, home to native birdlife.
Alternatively, by taking a 30-minute flight or two-hour ferry ride from the city, visitors will find Great Barrier Island, which has no towns or villages and features natural attractions such as surf beaches and forest walks.
Visitors wishing to travel further afield from Auckland, down towards New Zealand's capital Wellington, and even further south to the South Island, are advised to hire a campervan to ensure they make the most of what the country has to offer.