From Auckland and the Bay of Plenty to Waikato and Wellington, New Zealand has 16 distinct regions. Here’s everything you need to know.
A land of staggering natural beauty, New Zealand is divided into 16 distinct regions, each of which offers an insight into the country’s geopolitical, cultural and historical character. From the sub-tropical rainforests of the North Island to the snow-capped mountains and glaciers of the South Island, New Zealand’s administrative divisions are a reflection of its geographical diversity.
If you’re travelling to New Zealand, then like me, you might be fascinated by the history behind New Zealand’s different regions, as well as the things to do and places to visit in each one. Some of New Zealand’s regions are based on a mixture of Maori and British colonial divisions, while others are purely constructed out of geographical necessity. If you’re planning a trip to the Southern Hemisphere, then keep reading, as I explain everything you need to know about the regions of New Zealand.
Table of Contents
Regions of New Zealand
New Zealand is divided into 16 distinct regions. These regions of New Zealand serve as the primary administrative divisions of the country, in a similar way to states in Australia, or counties in England.
At the northern end of New Zealand, the Northland Region is known for its subtropical climate and significant Māori cultural influences. Moving south, the Auckland Region, New Zealand’s most populous area, is heavily urbanised, while the Waikato Region, with its fertile lands, is pivotal in the nation’s dairy industry, and the Bay of Plenty is celebrated for its abundant fruit production, particularly kiwifruit.
In the centre of the North Island, the Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, Manawatū-Whanganui, and Wellington regions each bring their unique attributes to New Zealand. Gisborne is the first place in the world to see the sunrise each day, Hawke’s Bay is distinguished by its Art Deco architecture, and Taranaki is known for its surf beaches and dairy farms. Manawatū-Whanganui offers rural scenery, and Wellington, the capital city, is a hub of political, cultural, and creative energy.
On the South Island, the regions of Tasman, Nelson, Marlborough, West Coast, Canterbury, Otago, and Southland each add to New Zealand’s regional diversity. Marlborough, is home to world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, while The West Coast, rugged and remote, is steeped in gold mining history. Canterbury, home to the city of Christchurch, is filled with heritage, and Otago, with its gold rush heritage, is also home to the University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university.
List of New Zealand regions
New Zealand’s 16 regions are divided between the North and South Islands:
- Bay of Plenty
- Gisborne (also known as Tairāwhiti)
- Hawke’s Bay
- West Coast
In addition, there are 4 territories:
- Cook Islands
- Ross Dependency
Regions of New Zealand: North Island
Let’s take a look at each of the North Island’s regions in more detail:
Auckland is the country’s largest and most populous city, and region. Its history dates back to around 1350 when Māori settled in the area. The city’s Māori name, Tāmaki Makaurau, reflects its desirability with the meaning ‘Tāmaki desired by many’.
Auckland was officially declared New Zealand’s capital in 1840, following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, but the capital was moved to Wellington in 1865 due to its more central location. Today, Auckland is known for its cultural mix, economic vitality, and stunning natural harbours.
It serves as a major hub of commerce and international travel, blending urban lifestyle with beautiful beaches, hiking trails, and a multitude of islands in the Hauraki Gulf.
2. Bay of Plenty
True to its name, the Bay of Plenty, located on the northeastern coast of the North Island, is a region rich in history and natural beauty. The name ‘Bay of Plenty’ was coined by Captain James Cook in 1769, reflecting the abundant resources and fertile lands he observed.
Historically, the region has been a significant area for Māori people, with numerous iwi (tribes) calling it home. Its warm climate and fertile soil make it ideal for agriculture, notably kiwifruit and avocado production. The Bay of Plenty is also famous for its beautiful beaches, active marine volcano Whakaari/White Island (which erupted in 2019), and the city of Tauranga, one of the fastest-growing cities in New Zealand.
The Gisborne region, located on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island, is steeped in both Māori and European history. Known to Māori as Tairāwhiti, meaning ‘the coast upon which the sun shines across the water’, it holds the distinction of being the first part of New Zealand sighted by Captain James Cook in 1769.
This region is also significant for being one of the earliest areas in New Zealand to be settled by Māori. Gisborne’s warm and sunny climate makes it ideal for agriculture, especially for vineyards, and it’s renowned for producing exquisite Chardonnay.
With its rich cultural heritage, beautiful beaches, and its status as the first place in the world to see the sunrise each day, Gisborne offers a unique blend of history, natural beauty, and viticulture.
4. Hawke’s Bay
Hawke’s Bay, situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island was named by Captain James Cook in 1769 after Sir Edward Hawke, a British naval officer. The region is steeped in both Māori and colonial heritage, but it’s particularly noted for its Art Deco architecture, especially in the city of Napier, which was rebuilt in this style following a devastating earthquake in 1931.
Hawke’s Bay is also one of New Zealand’s leading wine-producing regions, famous for its full-bodied reds and complex Chardonnays. The region’s fertile plains and warm climate contribute to its status as an agricultural powerhouse, with flourishing vineyards and orchards dotting the landscape.
Located in the lower North Island of New Zealand, the Manawatū-Whanganui region’s name derives from two main features: the Manawatū River and the Whanganui River, the latter being one of New Zealand’s longest rivers.
Historically, these rivers were vital for Māori tribes, providing both sustenance and transport routes. European settlement in the 19th century brought agriculture and forestry, shaping the region’s economy. Today, the region is known for its diverse landscapes, from the dramatic Ruahine and Tararua mountain ranges to the fertile plains.
Palmerston North, a major city in the region, is a hub for research and education, home to Massey University. The region’s blend of historical richness, academic influence, and natural beauty makes it a unique part of New Zealand.
Occupying the northernmost part of New Zealand’s North Island, Northland is a region that’s known for its warm, sub-tropical climate and stunning coastal scenery. Northland is often referred to as the ‘Winterless North’, and it holds a special place in New Zealand’s history as the site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, an event that shaped the nation’s future.
This region is deeply rooted in Māori culture, with numerous marae (Māori meeting grounds) and historic sites. Northland’s economy is diverse, encompassing agriculture, forestry, fishing, and growing tourism, with attractions like the Bay of Islands and the ancient Kauri forests. Its rich heritage, combined with its natural beauty, makes Northland a vital part of New Zealand’s identity.
The Taranaki region is located on the western coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and it’s renowned for its distinctive natural feature, Mount Taranaki (or Mount Egmont), a near-perfect conical volcano that dominates the landscape.
This region’s history is intertwined with both Māori culture and European settlement, marked by significant land conflicts in the 19th century. Taranaki’s rich, volcanic soil supports a thriving dairy industry, making it a key agricultural hub.
The region is also known for its energy resources, particularly natural gas and oil. Taranaki blends natural beauty with industrial and agricultural strength, offering spectacular coastal walks, lush forests, and a vibrant arts and culture scene in its main city, New Plymouth.
The Waikato region, located in the upper North Island of New Zealand, is named after the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river, which plays a central role in its geography and history.
The region is rich in Māori culture and history, notably the site of key battles during the New Zealand Land Wars in the 19th century. Waikato is also home to Hamilton, a rapidly growing city known for its arts scene and the University of Waikato.
The region’s diverse attractions include the famous Waitomo Caves, known for their stunning glow-worm displays, and the Hobbiton Movie Set, a popular destination for fans of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films.
The Wellington region encompasses New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Situated at the southern tip of the North Island, it includes not only the city itself but also outlying areas like the Kapiti Coast and the Wairarapa.
The city of Wellington is known for its harbour setting and is home to the national museum Te Papa Tongarewa and the iconic Beehive (New Zealand’s parliament building). The region’s geography ranges from rugged coastlines to rolling hills, offering diverse outdoor activities.
Wellington’s blend of political significance, cultural richness, and natural beauty, combined with its reputation as the world’s windiest city, makes it an interesting addition to your New Zealand itinerary.
Regions of New Zealand: South Island
Now let’s take a look at the South Island’s regions in more detail:
The Canterbury region is situated in the central-eastern part of New Zealand’s South Island, and from the vast Canterbury Plains to the towering Southern Alps, it’s a land of striking contrasts.
At its heart lies Christchurch, known as the ‘Garden City’, which has shown remarkable resilience and creativity in rebuilding after the significant earthquake of 2011. Canterbury’s history is deeply connected to both Māori culture and European settlement, with agriculture playing a pivotal role in its development.
The region is also a gateway to outdoor adventures, including skiing at Mount Hutt and exploring the picturesque Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
Marlborough is located at the northeastern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, and it’s world-renowned for its viticulture, especially its Sauvignon Blanc, which has put New Zealand on the global wine map.
The region enjoys a sunny climate with a rugged, scenic coastline, including the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, a series of ancient sunken river valleys filled with the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Marlborough’s history is marked by early Māori settlement and later European whaling and sealing activities, followed by farming and forestry.
Positioned at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, Nelson is celebrated for being the geographical centre of New Zealand. Nelson also holds a unique place in the country’s history as one of the earliest settled areas by both Māori and Europeans.
The region is dotted with creative studios and galleries, reflecting its strong arts and crafts heritage. Its diverse landscape ranges from golden beaches to untouched forests, offering abundant outdoor activities. The nearby Abel Tasman National Park, with its clear waters and coastal tracks, is a major draw for nature enthusiasts.
The Otago region, located in the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island, is a land of dramatic natural beauty and rugged landscapes, including the arid Central Otago, famous for its gold mining history and now renowned for its Pinot Noir vineyards.
The region’s main city, Dunedin, displays a proud Scottish heritage, evident in its Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Otago also encompasses the wildlife-rich Otago Peninsula, home to rare species like the yellow-eyed penguin.
Historically significant for the Central Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s, today Otago balances its historical legacy with outdoor recreation and a vibrant student population, courtesy of the University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university.
Southland is rather aptly located at the southernmost tip of New Zealand’s South Island. Known for its rolling, green farmland and dense native forests, Southland’s landscapes include the Fiordland National Park, part of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site, renowned for its breathtaking fiords and abundant hiking trails.
The region’s history is deeply tied to Māori culture, European settlement, and later, farming and forestry industries. Southland’s main city, Invercargill, reflects the region’s colonial Scottish heritage. The region is also famous for its unique wildlife, including the endangered kakapo and the iconic Bluff oysters, symbolising Southland’s blend of natural wonders and culinary delights.
The Tasman region, situated at the top northwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island, is named after Abel Tasman, who first sighted New Zealand in 1642.
The region is renowned for its diverse landscapes, encompassing golden beaches, lush forests, and rugged mountains. The Abel Tasman National Park, with its world-famous coastal track and clear blue waters, is a highlight of the region, attracting outdoor enthusiasts from around the world.
The Tasman region is also the location of Nelson City. However, Nelson forms its own individual region that’s counted separately from Tasman (confusing, I know!).
16. West Coast
The West Coast region of New Zealand stretches along the western shore of the South Island, and it’s renowned for its wild, untamed beauty and pioneering history. Characterised by rugged coastlines, dense rainforests, and towering mountain ranges, the region is a haven for nature lovers and adventurers.
Historically, the West Coast was the focal point of New Zealand’s gold rush in the 1860s, leaving a legacy of historic towns and relics across the region. Today, it’s known for its unique natural attractions, including the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.
Does New Zealand have any territories or dependencies?
New Zealand has several territories and dependencies, though they are quite distinct in terms of their governance and status. These include:
- Tokelau: A group of three tropical coral atolls in the South Pacific, Tokelau is a dependent territory of New Zealand. Its residents are New Zealand citizens, and it is administered through the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. However, Tokelau maintains a high degree of autonomy and is self-governing through its legal system and framework.
- Cook Islands: The Cook Islands is a self-governing country in free association with New Zealand. The residents are citizens of the Cook Islands and have New Zealand citizenship. The Cook Islands conduct their own foreign affairs and defence but rely on New Zealand in matters where they choose to have representation.
- Niue: Similar to the Cook Islands, Niue is a self-governing country in free association with New Zealand. This means that while it is autonomous and conducts its own government, the people of Niue are also New Zealand citizens. Niue manages its own foreign affairs, but defence responsibilities are shared with New Zealand, which also provides significant aid and support.
- Ross Dependency: The Ross Dependency is a region of Antarctica claimed by New Zealand. It encompasses the sector of the continent that extends from the South Pole to the Ross Sea. Not permanently inhabited, it is managed as part of New Zealand’s responsibilities under the Antarctic Treaty System, focusing on scientific research and environmental preservation.
A brief history of New Zealand’s regions
Before the arrival of Europeans, Māori tribes (iwi) were the principal occupants of New Zealand, with their own territories and social structures. The Māori concept of land management and territorial rights was vastly different from European notions of ownership and governance.
The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, between the British Crown and various Māori chiefs, marked the beginning of significant changes. It led to the establishment of a British colony in New Zealand and the imposition of a new governance system. Initially, New Zealand was divided into provinces. These provinces were established over several decades in the mid-19th century, each with its own elected provincial council. This system, however, was short-lived due to administrative and financial inefficiencies.
In 1876, the provincial government system was abolished, and New Zealand shifted to a central government system, with counties and boroughs handling local administration. This was the foundation of New Zealand’s local government structure, which continued to evolve over the following century.
The 20th century saw significant urbanisation and economic development in New Zealand, prompting the need for a more structured and efficient system of local governance. In response, the Local Government Act of 1974 was introduced, marking a major overhaul of local government structures. This act reduced the number of local government entities and introduced the current two-tier system of regional and district councils.
The present system, as established under the 1989 Local Government Act, comprises 16 regions, each governed by a regional council. These regions are the top tier of local government in New Zealand, responsible for large-scale environmental management, regional planning, and infrastructure. Below them are district and city councils, handling more localised services. This system aims to balance the needs of effective governance and local autonomy, allowing regions to manage their affairs while aligning with national policies.
Throughout this evolution, New Zealand’s administrative system has strived to respect and incorporate the country’s unique cultural heritage, particularly the role and rights of the Māori. This includes provisions for Māori representation and consultation in local governance.
FAQ: Regions of New Zealand
Here’s an FAQ on New Zealand’s regions:
Q1: How many regions are there in New Zealand?
There are 16 regions in New Zealand.
Q2: What are the largest and smallest regions by area?
The largest region by area is Canterbury, and the smallest is Nelson.
Q3: Which region is the most populous?
Auckland is the most populous region in New Zealand.
Q4: Do the regions have their own governments?
Yes, each region is governed by a regional council responsible for regional environmental management, resource management, and regional infrastructure and services.
Q5: What is the role of regional councils?
Regional councils manage large-scale environmental issues, such as water and air quality, biodiversity, and regional land transport.
Q6: How do regions differ from districts in New Zealand?
Regions cover larger areas and focus on broader environmental and infrastructural issues, while districts (managed by district or city councils) focus on local services like libraries, parks, local roads, and waste management.
Q7: Are the regions based on cultural or geographical features?
New Zealand’s regions are primarily based on geographical features, but they also reflect cultural and historical aspects, particularly the relationship with local Māori iwi (tribes).
Q8: Can regions enact their own laws?
Regional councils can create bylaws within the framework of national legislation, primarily focusing on environmental management and resource use.