As cases of Covid continue to rise around the world, New Zealand is looking increasingly attractive to those wanting to hunker down and ride it out.

Queenstown, in particular, has long had rumours swirling about wealthy Americans building doomsday-style bunkers but locals are sceptical, saying someone somewhere would have noticed that amount of earthworks being done.

Plenty of wealthy foreigners are known to have bought property in New Zealand, including Hollywood director James Cameron and billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who bought near Queenstown.

But whether bunkers have been built underground for those looking to escape political turmoil overseas or a global pandemic is a matter of speculation.

Advertisement

Now American company Rising S - the name comes from an end-of-days reference to rising Son, Jesus Christ - claims it will sell about a dozen bunkers in New Zealand this year.

The Texas-based company builds steel bunkers that are customisable with fully functioning kitchens, gyms, greenhouses, garages, games rooms, solar-power and security systems.

They range from an economy option around $40,000 right up into the millions - the average cost is about $3 million for a shelter weighing about 150 tons.

The company - which has a motto of "we don't sell fear, we sell preparedness" - says it has sold about 1400 bunkers globally in its 18 years of operation.

It has reportedly sold only a fraction of those into New Zealand and mostly to American buyers - about 10 bunkers over the past few years - but general manager Gary Lynch told CNN he expects to sell about a dozen more this year.

"Everybody wants their own personal touch to it, just like building a house," he said. "They're looking for something to protect their families, something that's self-sufficient, something that they can live in for a prolonged period of time."

He said it had become more difficult to get his fully constructed bunkers shipped into New Zealand, due to increased interest and media exposure, and when asked if he got permits to install the shelters underground here, he said: "We're supposed to, yes. I don't encourage anyone to do anything that goes against the rules."

However, locals aren't convinced the bunkers are being installed here, with scant evidence of permits, customs records, geotechnical engineering reports or resource consents.

Advertisement

Customs NZ told CNN it had done a thorough search of its online records but could find no dealings with Rising S.

And Queenstown Lakes District Council said that over the past five years it had had no resource consent applications for any bunkers at all in the area.

Queenstown Lakes District Council said over the past five years, it had had no resource consent applications for any bunkers at all in the area. Photo / James Allan
Queenstown Lakes District Council said over the past five years, it had had no resource consent applications for any bunkers at all in the area. Photo / James Allan

Neither had eight other South Island district councils.

Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult told CNN: "To be honest, it makes me laugh, because I'm not aware of any bunkers."

Local builders and architects agreed and Queenstown property lawyer Graeme Todd said if bunkers were being installed in the area, he most likely would have heard about it.

"Frankly, I think it's a marketing [move]."

Advertisement

But it's not just Queenstown - larger bunkers are said to also be in Northland and Canterbury.

Bloomberg earlier reported California-based company Vivos had installed a 300-person bunker in the South Island, just north of Christchurch, according to founder Robert Vicino.

But when the Herald asked Vivos about it earlier this year, "We didn't say it was in Christchurch. Happy hunting!" came the cryptic reply.

Hanmer Springs has also been cited previously. But Hurunui District Council planner Brooke Benny previously said there was "no history of any such consent being granted for any type of bunker".

Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult said the idea of bunkers in the area made him laugh. Photo / File
Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult said the idea of bunkers in the area made him laugh. Photo / File

Wanaka's Lyal Cocks, a former Queenstown Lakes deputy mayor and former independent planning commissioner earlier told the Herald he had closely examined resource consent applications, some involving wealthy overseas parties or their lawyers.

But when it came to underground bunkers being built, he was emphatic: "I've never seen any single piece of evidence of it."

Advertisement

However, he had an inkling of why the bolthole idea might have caught on.

"It was not so much totally underground bunkers as some large, secluded houses with parts of them underground."

Palatial homes may have parts built into the ground, in part to meet height restrictions in order to keep homes from becoming too out of place from their natural surroundings.

Real estate agent Bas Smith cited a $25m property at Wyuna Preserve near Queenstown with a 600 sq m basement that has a cinema - it's not a bunker, but could be seen as one.

Smith told CNN the bunker idea was "more a metaphor for a safe haven - choosing a place which has a safe government, a safe economy. And it's a long way from everywhere."