Thirty people from around the world have embarked on a cultural tour of New Zealand, fulfilling the quest of former US President Jimmy Carter.
The contingent, from the US, Canada, Belguim, Croatia and Australia, are being hosted and staying in the homes of Kiwis across the motu, as ambassadors from Friendship Force International.
Friendship Force International was started by Carter during his 1977-1981 presidency, with the aim of international travel and the friendships that formed, helping to break down cultural and geographical barriers. It is now in 30 different nations with thousands of members.
“Getting to know people in their home leads to bonds of trust, and trust is the basis of understanding,” he says of the world-wide organisation.
“Our goal was to create a ‘force’ using the power of friendship to break down barriers, by creating direct, personal ties among the people of the world.”
The group’s 24-day itinerary included a mihi from former New Zealand Consul General to Los Angeles, Leon Grice – who helped establish The Cloud in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. In sharing his pepeha, Grice explained the significance of whakapapa and Māori tradition, how Auckland is home to one third of New Zealand’s 5.2million population and that more than half of Aucklanders were born overseas. The group, predominantly from the US, were intrigued by New Zealand’s MMP election system and will experience the dairy industry first-hand on the trip.
Debbie Lattey, the regional support manager for Friendship Force International in New Zealand, says this country was among the first countries to establish clubs – in Whanganui, Napier and Hamilton, in 1983. There are now 10 clubs – eight in the North Island and two in the South Island.
“It is more than just travelling and meeting people. It’s about being exposed to different cultures and not perpetuating stereotypes. Many of those travelling now, started with Friendship Force in their forties or fifties and have made life-long friends with the people who have hosted them, or who they have hosted.”
She says the way the country is embracing and protecting its indigenous culture is a drawcard.
Post-COVID the organisation hopes to reinvigorate international hosting and attract new members both here and offshore.
“We are excited to continue our evolution,” Lattey says. “We are politically neutral and non-religious – it is humanity at a local level. There is an opportunity for clubs to embrace new members that make up the same ethnic diversity of the populations where they are based.”
The touring group ranges in age from early sixties to eighties, and the vibrant, inquisitive and active group will travel from Northland to Christchurch, experiencing Kiwi life while learning more about Aotearoa New Zealand’s past. Among the trip highlights are working farms with Clydesdale horses through to a robotic milking shed, rural school visits, world-famous scenery including Tāne Mahuta in Northland and Aoraki Mt Cook. But what will make this trip priceless and utterly unique is the opportunity to live with their hosts and be more immersed in the lifestyle than traditional tourism trips.
Carter, who turned 99 this year, will be proud to know that 45 years after he helped establish the organisation, that the old-school billeting in people’s homes thrives in today’s world of such prolific travel – and arguably trips where hotels rarely make up a highlight.
“If you want to see beyond the tourist sites, into the heart and soul of a country, this is by far the best way to travel,” Carter says. “Seasoned travellers know that if you’re going to experience life in another land, you have to get as close as you can to the people. You must embrace them and their ways, and the best way to do this is close up, in their homes.
“And one of the great attributes of a homestay programme is that by volunteering as a host family, you can learn about another culture without ever leaving home.”