New grants by Auckland Airport designed to spur new tourism products and experiences.

As the sun rises above the Waitemata Harbour, a group of international tourists hear a mighty wooden horn sound a blast and a woman call a blessing to the heavens.

The ceremony may be thousands of years old but Ngati Whatua Orakei's Ra Karakia experience is as 21st century as the massive passenger jets landing at Auckland Airport.

The project is one example of tourism initiatives supported by Auckland Airport's annual Tourism Development Grants. Now in their fifth year, the grants provide $100,000 seed funding each year to new products targeting New Zealand's key international tourism markets.

Two $50,000 grants are awarded to support the creation, development or "clustering" of experiences that attract international visitors in shoulder seasons - spring and autumn rather than the traditional summer and winter tourism peaks.

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Scott Tasker, the airport's acting general manager for aeronautical commercial, explains there are three ways the airport and organisations such as Tourism New Zealand and regional tourism organisations can attract overseas holidaymakers.

The first and second are: "Having a way for them to get here, and telling them why we're a great destination and why they should come here versus other destinations.

"Part of that is the natural beauty of the country, but we also have to have a set of exciting, quality tourism activities people can engage in - experiences attractive at different times of the year."

Tasker cites New Zealand Winegrowers, a 2016 recipient, as an example of creating a seasonal tourism initiative and demonstrating "clustering" - businesses banding together to provide a complete experience.

"They are in the first stages of co-ordinating New Zealand wine tourism experiences. They've conducted a full stocktake of their member wineries across the country to understand potential tourism opportunities the various wineries have.

"The next step will be to bring the wineries together to understand how they can work together in their regions to create tours or festivals, and then how to package and sell their products."

"Clustering" takes the tourists' day out one step further: "You've got the ability to take a set of experiences that could be combined - a transfer operator, accommodation, the vineyard experience, a bike trail, a balloon ride and then a transfer back to the accommodation at the end of the day.

"Within our regions, and across the territorial borders of regions, there are a number of really interesting tourism experiences that could be combined, and operators that could work together, to put together an attractive product."

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Tasker says the tourism industry is well-suited to the concept: "The tourism industry does have some large players. But the majority of operators are small, SME-type businesses. By working together where it makes sense, they can achieve some scale."

The airport is also open to individual tourism operators applying for funds to research or establish new offerings. Ngati Whatua Orakei, a grant recipient in 2015, is an example.
The iwi used the award to create the Ra Karakia experience at Bastion Point/Takaparawhau, which includes hotel pickups and drop-offs.

"There's a call to the sun, there's learning around Maori culture and the importance of the marae and that land, there's breakfast and then each group gets to plant a tree (part of Ngati Whatua Orakei's conservation award-winning project at Bastion Point).

"It's a really attractive experience. Part of the reason some visitors come here is to engage with New Zealanders and, in particular, they are looking for authentic engagement with Maori tourism.

"It's cultural, it's telling a story, it's very unique, it's close - you get to experience it first-hand and to meet people - and you get to plant a tree. That is a great example of how the grants work."

Tasker points out that tailoring tourists' activities to New Zealand's seasons is important.

"In autumn, for example, hiking in the mountains might not be as attractive if it's snowing. But visiting vineyards - food and wine experiences - become more attractive.

"We can't forget the peak season because a large proportion of our visitors come in November-March. But during the shoulder season - March-May and November-December - it's still a pretty good time to visit New Zealand."

Tourism New Zealand has opted to invest all its budget into promoting autumn and spring travel; it is delivering results.

The latest statistics show holiday arrivals in summer (December 2016-February 2017) were up 8.3 per cent on the previous year. However, holiday arrivals in the 2016 spring (September-November) were up almost twice that, at 16.1 per cent.

Many more Americans are coming here on vacation, with around 45,500 more visitors in the year ending February 2017 compared to the previous year, an increase of 29.6 per cent.

Almost 40,000 more Australians - our largest market - crossed the Ditch in the same period, a 7.6 per cent increase.

German and Japanese visitors are steadily increasing with 9000 more tourists from each country. India showed a 15.9 per cent increase and Indonesia a 23.1 per cent rise.

Previous Auckland Airport Tourism Development Grant recipients include TIME Unlimited, Explore Group, YHA, ZeaYou Travel, Sachie's Kitchen and Xtreme Destinations Ltd.

To apply click here. Closing date 30 June 2017.