It's been two decades in the making, but the $9.6 million Manea Footprints of Kupe centre was finally opened in the Hokianga on Wednesday.
Up to 400 people turned out to celebrate the completed interactive cultural, tourism and education centre, which will celebrate Kupe's voyage to Hokianga and his journeys across Aotearoa.
They included senior Hokianga kaumātua John Klaricich, former Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, representatives from the New Zealand Chinese Association, Far North District Council chief executive Shaun Clarke, Far North district councillor Kelly Stratford and regional councillor Marty Robinson.
Manea Footprints of Kupe general manager Kathrine Clarke said it was a "significant new tourism product opening not only for Northland, but for New Zealand".
The centre would provide a much-needed boost in the region's visitor economy, as well as creating 16 jobs for the area, she said.
"With the high unemployment and low economic development in the area, this is a combination of trying to address these things; to provide opportunities for our young people in terms of education and employment," Clarke said.
"It offers a powerful platform to share our cultural heritage, people and place stories with domestic visitors, as well as international guests once borders open."
The cultural centre tells the story of Polynesian explorer Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa more than 1000 years ago, and his unique connection to Hokianga.
A 75-minute interactive guided tour, led by Kupe's descendants, features authentic cultural engagement including protocols, storytelling, waiata and karakia.
It culminates in a pōwhiri and a 20-minute live theatre performance and 4D movie – bringing to life Kupe's epic journey and the dramatic return voyages of his progenies.
Kiri Atkinson-Crean, from New Zealand Māori Tourism, said the story "belongs to all New Zealanders".
"It's a game changer in the way we go about sharing culture," she said.
"It's about including people and bringing them into the story, rather than performing at them."
The project is the brainchild of Te Hua o te Kawariki Trust and was identified in the Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan, which was launched in February 2016.
It received $4.6m from the Government's provincial growth fund in 2018 along with $500,000 from the Northland Regional Council.
The opening started at 5am with a blessing, followed by a pōwhiri and speeches.
Waiata were performed by students from Opononi Area School and Te Kura Kaupapa o Te Tonga o Hokianga.
Jones, who attended the dawn ceremony, said it was a "privilege to be there".
"Any economic opportunities in the Hokianga have to be celebrated," he said.
"The tradition of Kupe in the Hokianga are deep and ancient in New Zealand history."
And with New Zealand history becoming a vital part of the national school curriculum by 2022, Manea will also play a key role in telling our country's story, Clarke said.
The centre would host numerous school group visits throughout the year while also showcasing the area's rich Māori heritage.
"We often don't have the opportunity to share our story in our way," she said.
"Often words like spirituality and wairua are not understood. This gives us an opportunity to express that, using our words and our people."
The centre was set to open its doors to tourists in October.
But because of delays with construction caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it will now be open to the public on Monday.
Clarke said the entire marketing plan had to be revised to suit a domestic-only market.
"It's a new venture, we've pivoted like all other tourism sectors. We've done exactly the same as other tourism ventures around the country."