7 Feb 2010

Waitangi crowd well short of 50,000 expected

7:35 am on 7 February 2010

The number of people visiting the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi for this year's Waitangi Day celebrations fell well short of the 50,000 organisers expected.

Late Saturday afternoon the Waitangi National Trust said the head-count was about 30,000, well short of the 50,000 it had planned to welcome. Last year, the police estimated the number of visitors at between 40,000 and 50,000.

Officials attribute the drop to last weekend's popular Nga Puhi festival and the fact that Waitangi Day isn't part of a long weekend.

Those who did come this year enjoyed a relaxed, whanau-friendly atmosphere, tucking into hangi and listening to music in brilliant sunshine after a morning of formalities.

And the trust's chief executive, Jeanette Richardson, notes that more international tourists chose to visit the grounds during the celebrations, and that there's growing international interest in Waitangi Day, including from overseas media.

The police area commander for the Far North, Inspector Chris Scahill, says he noticed a lighter mood at Waitangi year on year, with more people choosing to use it as a place for peaceful celebration.

PM, Chief Justice offer prayers

At the dawn service, which has become so popular in recent years that rows of seats are now placed outside the whare for the hundreds who come, Prime Minister John Key offered part of his prayer in te reo Maori, giving thanks for New Zealand being a prosperous country.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias offered a prayer for justice and paid tribute to the role of the late Matiu Rata in the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, saying he forged a modern pathway to settling Treaty claims.

Labour Party leader Phil Goff, Ngapuhi elders, foreign envoys and other dignitaries also attended ceremonies at Waitangi marking the 170th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840.

Giant waka sails for first time in 70 years

After the service, thousands of people watched the launch at Te Tii beach of about 15 waka from all over the country - fewer than had been expected.

Among them was the giant Waitangi waka Ngatokimatawhaorua, with 80 paddlers, which was sailing for the first time in 70 years.

A 21-gun salute was fired at noon and the navy band played throughout the afternoon.

The annual protest hikoi to the Treaty Grounds passed without incident.

In Wellington, events at Waitangi Park featured speeches, kapa haka and entertainment by Maori and Pacific artists. Stalls sold traditional Maori food and a live band entertained the crowd on a fine warm afternoon.

South Island celebrations

At Onuku near Akaroa, one of the three sites where the Treaty was signed by Ngai Tahu in 1840, government representatives praised Ngai Tahu for its leadership in Treaty negotiations.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand both commended Ngai Tahu for its foresight and leadership, saying it had shown the way for other tribes to follow as the settlement process continues.

Mr English said he believes that, thanks to that leadership, there will soon be a time when differences between Maori and Pakeha no longer cause division in the community.

Two hundred people were at Onuku Marae for the celebrations, including MPs and representatives from police, local government and North Island iwi.

Ngai Tahu's celebrations have focused on the whenua, or land - in particular the creation of Takapuneke Reserve, which takes in Akaroa and its surrounding waters.

Stewart Island

Stewart Islanders have their own Waitangi Day tradition - a Maori versus Pakeha rugby game.

Maori team captain Paul Sooalo says it's an all-comers match, open to everyone from former representative players to foreign tourists who have never held a rugby ball before.

After the game, he says, both teams usually retire to the pub to watch replays of the match. The celebrations were due to end with a bonfire on the beach and a hangi for more than 200 people, organised by the local iwi.