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New Zealand Recruiting Wealthy Immigrants - 2003-12-24

New Zealand has begun a campaign to recruit wealthy Americans to emigrate with the lure of cheap, coastal properties and a life isolated from the threat of terrorism. A wave of new arrivals has brought with it millions of dollars worth of investment. However, the resulting development boom and soaring land prices have provoked dismay among some community leaders.

Here on the Tasman Bay at the tip of the South Island the idyllic coastline gives way to a fertile hinterland. Many New Zealanders refer to this region as their secret slice of paradise, but development fueled largely by money from overseas means this is no longer an undiscovered gem.

These are busy times for real estate agents in this part of New Zealand. Rob Wallace has helped dozens of Americans buy their small corner of the South Pacific. Many, he says, are looking for a safe haven from the threat of terrorist attack.

"About six weeks after September the 11 [2001], I had an inquiry from a Montana rancher on a large farm I was selling in the South Island. Right at the end of the conversation he asked me if he could fly down to New Zealand without flying over any hostile territory," says Mr. Wallace. "The message was that he'd not actually not even looked at the map to see where New Zealand was. He just had an understanding that we were safe and along way away from any terrorist activity."

Residency applications from the United States have recently topped one thousand a year for the first time, a significant increase from past levels. And government figures show that since 1998, Americans have been involved in nearly 40 percent of the total foreign investment in New Zealand.

In an effort to sell New Zealand as a place to live, especially to Californians, the government has launched a multimillion dollar media marketing campaign this year in the United State.

Beth Mills emigrated from California with her husband, Greg and their young child two years ago. They want to buy a vineyard in a region where prices are about a tenth of what they would be in the United States. As well as business opportunities, security was a pivotal factor in their decision to move. "It's a good place to raise kids. It's very safe," she says. "It basically is able to take us back to the way things were in the United States when we were growing up."

Her husband Greg likes the pace of New Zealand life. "On the whole it's just a much simpler, happier life where we can really, you know, focus on being a family and see more of each other."

Mrs. Mills, however, is not certain she would want to share their new community with many other Americans. "I would hope it was a secret place. I don't want a whole bunch of Americans coming over here because I don't want this to be America," she says. "I really like it the way it is."

The area around where the Mills have settled boasts a Mediterranean climate. It has attracted a large number of Britons as well as Americans in recent years, although not everyone is pleased to see them.

"The growth rate at the moment - which is double what is was, say, two years ago - has got a bit uncomfortable," says Bob Dickinson, who is in charge of the Tasman District Council.

Much the country's new investment from the United States is concentrated in his region. For some local authorities this flood of new money has caused too much development and overloaded public services.

"The dilemma for [the] council is that we don't really have ways to stop immigrants arriving," says Mr. Dickinson. "We can't go to the airport and tell the immigrants to go away. We don't have that legal ability. So to some extent we have to try and cope with whatever arrives."

Some developers are accused of destroying stretches of coastline or denying residents access to beaches or forests. Peter Love is a leader of the Maori indigenous community in the Tasman Bay area. He says he is worried about the environmental damage new investment may do.

"It's a question of we're great conservationists of the land in terms of keeping it in its natural state and American investment doesn't want to do that and has illustrated it doesn't want to do that," says Mr. Love. "They want to build lodges and 18-hole golf courses where very, very wealthy people can come and have an exclusive game of golf on some of the most magnificent coastal scenery in the world."

Much of New Zealand's immigration policy is aimed at helping the economy grow. Many observers say that means the wave of Americans with deep pockets seeking sanctuary and opportunity is not likely to fizzle out anytime soon.