One-on-One With AAT Kings: Culinary Options, Hobbit Boost Australia and New Zealand Travel

At the USTOA Conference in Boca Raton this past weekend, we caught up with Kristina Hofmann, sales manager for Australian tour operator AAT Kings to find out where people are going Down Under, and what they’re doing.

A dedicated food and wine marketing campaign from Tourism Australia, launched earlier this year, has increased awareness of the country’s culinary scene, Hofmann said. “It’s changed how people see Australia.” (Good to know: Tourism Australia now has a dedicated online hub for Australian restaurants to promote their menus—a good resource when planning a culinary-themed trip.) 

In terms of cities, Sydney and Melbourne are the most popular destinations, Hofmann said, and food and wine tours have become very popular in each. Numerous wine trails are within an easy drive of Sydney (the Hunter Valley is especially rich with wineries, and is popular for day tours—which, of course, AAT Kings can organize), and Melbourne is famous for its outdoor cafes along the river, boosting its appeal for foodie travel. 

New Zealand

Fifteen years after director Peter Jackson filmed both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit trilogy in New Zealand, the island nation has significantly increased in popularity, at least some of which could be credited to the backdrops and preserved sets. The Hobbiton set gets significant traffic, and Hofmann noted that many visitors now fly into New Zealand directly for an extended tour (primarily of the South Island, she said) and only then go to Australia for a shorter visit. “It’s amazing what Peter Jackson has done [for New Zealand tourism],” Hofmann said.

The final movie in Jackson's New Zealand-filmed Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, will be released on December 12 in the UK and December 17 in the United States.

New Attractions, New Destinations

A popular new attraction in Sydney is a double-decker bus with a clear-glass top. The bus drives across Sydney Harbour Bridge, and passengers can look straight up for an unimpeded view of the structure. Guests also get to walk on the bridge for a more leisurely exploration, Hofmann noted.

The biggest destinations in Australia, Hofmann said, remain the perennials: Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. AAT is the biggest operator out to Uluru, she noted, and will often serve as the transfer operator for other tours or brief day trips.

AAT Kings is also seeing a “big spike” in small group bookings, she continued, which generally run for three days or fewer and visit off-the-beaten-path destinations like the Red Centre, Top End, the Blue Mountains and Kangaroo Island. For unique experiences, she added, AAT works with indigenous groups to provide cultural insights and offer a different perspective of some of the ancient attractions.