Kiwi's the Key : New Zealanders Seeking San Diego Connections

Times Staff Writer

New Zealanders credit themselves as resourceful people.

When the country realized that a more attractive name would enhance the marketability of a tasty New Zealand fruit, growers began referring to their "Chinese gooseberries" as "Kiwi fruit."

And when the country was positioning its tasty but unattractively named "slime fish" for the international market, a timely name change to "Orange Roughy" turned the seafood into a welcome entree around the world.

Now, a group of San Diego's resourceful "Kiwis"--the name New Zealanders use to identify themselves--are hoping to boost San Diego's share of the trade and tourism dollars traveling between New Zealand and the United States.

Of the $750 million in goods New Zealand exported to the United States during fiscal 1985, $242 million arrived through West Coast ports, with nearly half unloaded at Long Beach and Los Angeles.

But other than a few luxury sailing yachts that were purchased by San Diegans, no New Zealand merchandise was shipped through San Diego.

To bolster San Diego's share of U.S.-New Zealand trade and tourism dollars, the local Kiwi contingent recently created the San Diego New Zealand Trade Assn., which on Monday brought recently appointed Ambassador Sir Wallace Rowling to San Diego for his first official visit.

Rowling predicted Monday that trade between the two countries would not be stalled by New Zealand's refusal to receive nuclear-armed U.S. Navy ships in its ports. Instead, he suggested that trade between the two countries, which grew 51% to $3.3 billion during 1985, will continue to grow.

Transplanted New Zealanders around the States have been pushing for a bigger share of those tourism and trade dollars.

Last week, New Zealanders in Santa Barbara showcased the country's agricultural and horticultural products in a citywide fair that ran in conjunction with a two-day film festival that included New Zealand films. New Zealanders recently organized meetings in Dallas and Chicago touting the benefits of increased trade and tourism between the two countries.

"I believe there's great potential for growth in tourism and trade in San Diego, both on imports and exports . . . especially with the (current) government that has basically deregulated the economy," said Rob Ayling, a New Zealand attorney who has practiced with Gray Cary Ames & Frye in San Diego since 1982.

To bolster San Diego's role, the association has planned a South Pacific Exposition that will focus on trade and tourism and a conference that will be opened to all New Zealand companies operating in the United States, said Ayling, who serves as the association's chairman.

"I sit here in my First Interstate (building) office looking at this beautiful harbor, and think there would be a great possibility of routing New Zealand trade to San Diego," said Ayling, who hopes to build upon his New Zealand law experience and an understanding of how New Zealand businesses operate.

San Diego's New Zealand contingent took note when two major Chilean fruit growers recently diverted half of their winter fruit shipments to San Diego from Long Beach and Los Angeles. Ayling suggested that, if the Philadelphia-based shipper who is handling the Chilean shipments successfully challenges a long-held belief that San Diego is too far from established distribution routes, "we could interest New Zealand shippers to provide service through San Diego."

Although New Zealand shipped $9 million in fruit to the U.S. during 1985, it also shipped $325 million in beef; $90 million in casein, a milk product used in various baked goods; $20 million worth of hides and skins, and $30 million in pure wool.

"San Diego is a beautiful city for someone from New Zealand and the potential here (for increased trade) is unlimited," suggested Lindsay Gulliver, who since 1983 has operated Golden Fleece Imports, a Ramona-based company that sells New Zealand sheepskin products.

"This association will need a lot of capital and effort to get it off of the ground, and we're just at the beginning now," Gulliver said. "We've still got to mastermind the alliance to see where we want to go with it.

"I don't see how San Diego can do anything but benefit from an enhanced trade relationship with New Zealand."

"We've got the most enterprising government in our country for a long, long time," said David Jackson, a New Zealander who has opened a commercial real estate business in San Diego. "My pitch is simple: Invest your money in the South Pacific region in a country that has low land values, a steady government and a dollar that is relatively low in value."

Jackson believes that rising violence in the Middle East has caused concerned U.S. investors to look elsewhere. "What we're (offering) is a chance to invest your money in a hotel to be operated by a major American operator," he said.

But hotel operators aren't the only Americans interested in New Zealand: among the growing wave of tourists who visit New Zealand are U.S. rugby players traveling to New Zealand and Australia to play rugby.

"They're like any religious fanatic who's visiting Jerusalem," quipped Peter Sertic, who schedules rugby tours and sells rugby equipment through his Triton Sports store in Solana Beach. "If you really want to understand the game from a cultural and game aspect, you have to go there."

The new association will "help San Diego businesses make better contacts with different types of suppliers in New Zealand and Australia," Sertic said.

Association members hope to make those connections through a South Pacific Exposition in June, a yet-to-be-scheduled conference that will be open to New Zealand companies doing business in the United States, and a New Zealand report that will be mailed to the group's 230 members.

The new association also hopes to bolster San Diego's share of a growing tourism link between the United States and San Diego. During the first nine months of 1985, nearly 113,000 tourists--a third of them from California--visited New Zealand and about 32,000 New Zealanders visited here.

"It's almost a crusading kind of thing," suggested Patricia Thornton, a New Zealander who has opened a travel business in San Diego. "A little country like New Zealand needs marketing assistance to try to do the kinds of things it can through a consulate office."

"But right now is an absolutely glowing time for the South Pacific," said Thornton, who believes New Zealand's status as a tourism center will be strengthened during the next two years by star-gazing tourists who want a better view of Halley's comet--and a residual flow of tourists who will visit Australia during 1987's America's Cup yacht races.

"One of the things we're going to try to do is find a way to stimulate the travel industry here in San Diego," said Thornton, who spent 11 years working at Great American First Savings Bank before returning briefly to New Zealand last year only to find that she was now "more an American than a New Zealander."

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