Key Points:

Contractors about to start upgrading and sealing the last metalled section of State Highway 1 in New Zealand expect work to take at least three years over the 19km distance between Cape Reinga and Waitiki Landing.

A dawn hura whenua (soil turning ceremony) at Cape Reinga has marked the start of a $14.5 million project to seal the dusty, twisting highway to and from the iconic location.

Contractors United Civil Construction will be employing some local contractors and will offer employment to local people.

Training schemes for young people may also be set up.

Sealing the highway is likely to mean a reversal of a policy by rental car companies not to insure their cars if they are driven on the existing road to the Cape.

Tour operators will benefit from less wear and tear on big tourist coaches.

The present metalled road, formed about 50 years ago from a farm track and never designed as a state highway, has more than 100 bends and carries an estimated 1300 vehicles a day during summer.

The new road surface will eliminate choking clouds of dust, potholes and corrugations, and will result in fewer accidents, especially among foreign visitors unused to driving on metalled roads.

More than 150,000 plants grown locally in a nursery developed by local iwi Ngati Kuri will be used to revegetate the roadside and prevent erosion.

Seeds have been gathered from plants growing in the area to ensure they are resistant to the harsh weather, wind and soil conditions around the Cape area.

Cape Reinga, known as Te Rerenga Wairua, attracts more than 120,000 visitors a year.

Highway authority Transit NZ, which let the sealing contract, says visitor numbers are growing by about 5 per cent annually and are expected to further significantly increase when sealing is completed in mid to late 2010.

The Cape has major cultural and environmental importance for Maori who believe it to be the departure place of spirits as they make their final journey to their ancestral home of Hawaiiki.

The Department of Conservation meanwhile is developing new visitor facilities and infrastructure at Cape Reinga designed to cater for the expected increase in tourists.

Work proposed for the area includes new car parking, walking tracks, information boards, relocated and eco-friendly toilets, landscaping and replanting.