How New Zealand Became the Home of Extreme Sports

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus
NZ, extreme sports
New Zealand has become a magnet for extreme adventurers, in large part because of protections provided by the Accident Compensation Corporation. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Ever since the day in June 1987 when A.J. Hackett launched himself off the Eiffel Tower, tethered by a mere elasticized rope, adventure seekers around the globe have been enamored with bungee jumping. The Kiwi's promotional stunt also helped cement New Zealand's reputation as the birthplace of extreme adventures. In addition to bungee jumping, activities such as zorbing — rolling downhill in a giant, plastic ball — and canyon flying — sort of a combination of bungee jumping and ziplining — were born here.

Why extreme activities in New Zealand? Some say Kiwis are just kinda crazy. But others claim the rise of extreme sports may be related to something few people are aware of: the ACC.


The Accident Compensation Corporation

The ACC, or Accident Compensation Corporation, was created in 1974 by the New Zealand government. Its basic purpose is to administer the country's public accident insurance fund. The fund, akin to the U.S. Workers' Compensation program, pays the medical bills of those injured in accidents on New Zealand soil. Kiwi companies pay annually into the fund (which also receives monies from other sources), with premiums based on the risk level inherent to their type of business. The businesses also have to follow certain safety regulations and standards aimed at accident prevention.

The ACC covers both residents and tourists. And fault is never an issue. So if you've tossed back one too many in your motel room, then fall and break your nose, the ACC still pays your medical bills. And if you're injured when your rental bike blows a tire, it doesn't matter whether the rental company provided you with a dangerous set of wheels or if you carelessly sped over a pile of nails — your expenses will be covered. In return for such generosity, you can't sue anyone for negligence. And that provision is key, experts say.


Without the fear of expensive, messy lawsuits, Kiwi tour operators have long been free to create risky, extreme-adventure activities. In other areas of the world, such as Europe, travelers injured in an accident may similarly receive complimentary or inexpensive medical attention as part of the region's universal health care system. But they still typically are free to sue, say, the bungee-jump operator for their injury. Hence, New Zealand is still more more attractive to those providing extreme adventure.

"The ACC has broader public policy ramifications than the positive aspect of paying for a victim's medical costs," says Bruce May, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who is currently studying risk management in adventure travel. "It can lessen the motivation of some tour operators to be careful so as not to prevent injury."

While May and other experts don't believe the ACC was created as a shield for entrepreneurs — that is, so folks like Hackett could create potentially risky adventures without worrying too much about safety — some researchers also assert that its presence helped create a culture of minimal safety standards and carelessness within the Kiwi adventure tourism industry, as evidenced by several high-profile rafting deaths in the mid-1990s and beyond.

It didn't help that most of the country's early extreme-adventure tour operators were young men often described as desiring excitement and living life on the edge. "This attitude severely affected safety judgments and assessment of client capability," May says.

The scenario is more positive today. The ACC has increased and improved its regulatory and industry standards, focused on higher-quality education and training for tour operators and guides, and provides participants with sufficient pre-participatory information, May says. "New Zealand's adventure travel is much safer than it was 20 years ago, but safety continues to be a focus area for improvement."


The Adventure Tourism Boom

Potential safety concerns — in New Zealand and elsewhere — don't appear to have dampened enthusiasm for throwing oneself off precipices or shooting through rapids, as adventure tourism is skyrocketing worldwide, says May. According to a study by Sandler Research, adventure travel industry revenues hit $7.88 trillion in 2015. And between 2016 and 2020, the global adventure tourism market is expected to grow another 46 percent.

For now, presumably thanks to the ACC, it appears the Kiwis will continue to dominate the adventure travel sphere. And thrill-seekers will continue to sign on. "Risk and thrill are an inherent part of adventure travel," says May. "Take away the risk and thrill, and you no longer have an adventure travel experience."