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BBC coverage gives isolated Whangamōmona an international tourism audience

One of New Zealand’s most isolated rural communities might be in for a tourist boom – and residents are hoping they don’t all come at once.

The website of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has published a glowing review of Whangamōmona on its Travel section, which has an audience of more than 3 million people around the world, and recommended a visit to the self-declared republic – population 126.

But while welcoming the publicity, Whangamōmona president John Herlihy said he did not know where extra tourists would stay as the town on State Highway 43, the Forgotten World Highway between Stratford and Tauramanui, does not have a lot of accommodation.

John Herlihy was re-elected for a third term as president of the Republic of Whangamōmona in 2021.

GLENN JEFFREY/Stuff

John Herlihy was re-elected for a third term as president of the Republic of Whangamōmona in 2021.

“We are limited to the amount of people we can have in Whanga itself because there’s just nowhere to stay,” he said.

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“The town can’t have all that many people because there aren’t enough facilities.”

The BBC article features Whangamōmona’s Republic day, which takes place every other January after a ‘revolt’ in November 1989 over Government boundary changes that riled locals up enough to declare themselves independent.

Republic Day draws crowds of people wanting to get amongst the quirky traditions of Whangamōmona, including the election of the president, and Herlihy – who is in his third term – said it is great for businesses.

But any more people over a long period of time could be a juggle.

“Two or three thousand is a good crowd, but over 5000 is a bit over the top, really, with car parking, toilets and services.”

A new president is elected on republic day and votes are cast into this “secret ballot”.

GLENN JEFFREY/Stuff

A new president is elected on republic day and votes are cast into this “secret ballot”.

Herlihy said residents love sharing a beer with new tourists. The Whangamōmona hotel and bar can sleep up to 34 people and its lodge can host up to 10.

There are other accommodation options, such as two or three holiday houses, he said, and turning away visitors is not something the locals want to do.

Although he featured, Herlihy admitted he had yet to read the BBC article, but said coverage of the small town would “boost things up a bit” for businesses, and he expected to see more fresh faces during the next Republic day, which is set for January 2023.

The Whangamōmona Hotel can sleep up to 34 people and its lodge can host up to 10.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

The Whangamōmona Hotel can sleep up to 34 people and its lodge can host up to 10.

Herlihy said the Whangamōmona pub and accommodation is always busy over summer and things are only now starting to quieten down – with some people getting ahead for next summer.

“People are already booking in for the hotel next year just because you know it’s unique.”

Vicki Pratt, who owns the Whangamōmona Hotel with her husband, Richard, said the BBC article would advertise the republic at a scale that money couldn’t buy to an audience outside New Zealand.

Whangamōmona republic day has activities such as miniature golf, gambling, swimming with eels, watching dog trials, shearing and sheep racing.

GLENN JEFFREY/Stuff

Whangamōmona republic day has activities such as miniature golf, gambling, swimming with eels, watching dog trials, shearing and sheep racing.

“It’s game changing really, for the fact it means overseas people are thinking, ‘Hey let’s go there!’ and it wasn’t even on their map,” Vicki said.

“We are very much a NZ destination, so it’s a great way to open the gate.”

International borders have now opened, meaning vaccinated visitors, and people from other countries who already hold a visa, can enter New Zealand.

Although Pratt hopes to welcome people into the republic, she also hopes they don’t flood in as she prefers to be able to tend to every visitor personally.

Whangamomona Hotel owners Vicki and Richard Pratt (file photo).

SIMON O’CONNOR/STUFF/Stuff

Whangamomona Hotel owners Vicki and Richard Pratt (file photo).

“We are all about hospitality for our visitors, and we can’t do that justice with too many people.”

The BBC publicity is the biggest boost for the area since travel authority Lonely Planet named Taranaki as the second-best region in the world to visit in 2017.

Pratt said expecting crowds of people to arrive at the border of the republic was “a bit of crystal ball gazing”, but she knew for sure that locals would sit down with anyone.

“They chat, and they treat them like family.”

The Whangamōmona Hotel is a stopping-off point for many visitors.

SIMON O’CONNOR/STUFF/Stuff

The Whangamōmona Hotel is a stopping-off point for many visitors.

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