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Oceania & the Pacific
The seventh continent is usually considered to consist of Australia, New Zealand and the smaller islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Since there is no other continent between Asia and North and South America, it can be taken to include the whole Pacific region from Papua New Guinea eastwards. The term ‘Oceania’was coined in 1812 by French biographer Conrad Malte-Brun, and usefully includes large countries like Australia and New Zealand (population 23m and 4.5m respectively) and tiny sovereign states like Palau (population 21,000) and Nauru (population 9,000). Twelve independent states are members of the Pacific Islands Forum, recognised by the UN.
In this region, Australia is so dominant as the most populous country and the greatest landmass at 7.6m square km (nearly 3m sq miles), and having the 12th largest economy in the world, that it is sometimes thought of as “the island continent” In 2012, Australia had the world’s 5th highest GDP per person (source: IMF), and its prosperity is mainly based on exploitation of its abundant natural resources, particularly agricultural products like wine, wheat and wool, and minerals like iron ore, gold and coal, much of which it exports to China and Japan. Australia is the only developed economy to have avoided recession since the global financial crash of 2008-9, and it has continued to grow throughout the 21st century. However some individual Australian states without minerals have been in recession, and as a whole Australia has some of the highest house prices and the highest levels of personal debt in the world.
Tourism forms an important part of Australia’s economy. Of its major cities, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide all make it into the top 10 of ‘the world’s most livable cities (source:The Economist magazine 2012). Under the slogan “There’s nothing like Australia” the government tourist agency promotes the culture, indigenous history, varied landscapes, and beach and outdoor activity culture on offer. In the Red Centre, Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, is one of the most photographed iconic symbols of the ancient human society that occupied this continent long before European explorers got here in the 17th century. The 600 million year old sandstone inselberg, together with the 36 domes that make up Kata Tjuta nearby, attract nearly half a million visitors a year to this World Heritage Site.
New Zealand has a much younger history than Australia, in that the Polynesian islanders only brought their Māori culture there in the 13th century, whereas the aborigine people of Australia have occupied their lands for an estimated 40,000 years. New Zealand became a British Colony in 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi, and now the majority of the population is of European descent. Because of its remote location 1,500km (900 miles) east of Australia and far to the south of the main Pacific island areas, New Zealand was one of the last parts of the world to be settled by humans. For this reason it has its own special biodiversity, with much of its flora and fauna not being found anywhere else on the planet. Probably the best-known of these unique species are the flightless birds like the Kiwi and the extinct Moa, which had no predators until humans arrived, and therefore lost the ability to fly. A number of “living fossils”like the Jurassic tuatara, skinks, frogs, worms, flies, and the giant Kauri tree have been isolated on New Zealand’s two islands since the landmass broke away from the former supercontinent known as Gondwana 85 million years ago. They were not joined by any land mammals until humans brought them much more recently. Rats and cats and dogs, together with the devastating possum imported from Australia, have since caused the extinction of a number of endemic species. There are no snakes in New Zealand, and only one poisonous creature, a spider.
Tourists head to the sub-tropical North Island for fascinating Maori culture and geothermal spectacles at Rotorua. The glorious Bay of Islands and the magnificent beaches of the Coromandel peninsula show New Zealand’s varied coastline at its best. More temperate South Island is the place for exciting close encounters with albatross, seals and penguins, and whale and dolphin watching at Kaikoura. Young ‘Gap-packers’ make straight for Queenstown, the centre for extreme sports, and the wine country of Marlborough and the beautiful coastal Abel Tasman National Park attract many visitors. In the west, the two very different fiords at Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are equally unforgettable, while two glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef, are worth a visit.
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