Marlborough - An overview of the region

Last Modified: 29-3-2018 17:54

Cloudy Bay
Cloudy Bay

Marlborough is a region of great geographical diversity, and rich history in the north-east of the South Island, ofNew Zealand. The region extends from the Marlborough Sounds, in the north to the rugged Pacific coastline in the south east, with the relatively arid south western interior that takes in New Zealand's largest farm, Molesworth. Historically, the Marlborough Province extended south to the Conway River incorporating Kaikoura. In 1989, changes to local government resulted in Kaikoura District becoming separate from Marlborough, and falling under the jurisdiction of the Canterbury Regional Council, however the Marlborough Land District with boundaries similar to the old provincial boundaries is used in association with property titles. Given that administrative boundaries may change over time, and historical information, for the purposes of this website, 'Marlborough' may refer to both the Marlborough Land District, and the Marlborough District, as administered by the Marlborough District Council. 

Marlborough is geologically active, with a number of major faultlines, and parts of the landscape bear the scars of glaciation. The Marlborough Sounds are a series of drowned valleys resulting from the north east of the South Island gradually moving north over time, and the valleys gradually sinking.


Climate varies widely from temperate rainforest in parts of the Marlborough Sounds through to highly arid areas such as the Awatere, back to more a more humid climate further south. Blenheim, the largest population centre frequently holds the national record for the highest annual sunshine hours in New Zealand. Over time, the region is showing a trend of becoming warmer and dryer as a result of climate change. 

Mean Temperature in Blenheim 1981-2010 - Source - NIWA
Mean Rainfall (mm) in Blenheim 1981-2010 - Source - NIWA

Human Activity

Marlborough boasts some of the oldest archeological sites in New Zealand with sites on the boulder bank and Wairau Bar dated to around 1300 AD. Many other historic Māori pa sites occur in different parts of the region, and there is a small but active local representation of various Māori tribes (iwi).

European settlement began with sealers and whalers, and later with squatters who took up large pastoral runs. Relations between local Māori and Europeans were at times strained, with the "Wairau Incident" being the climax of various dubious land deals. It was in Marlborough that South Island iwi signed the Treaty of Waitangi (Tiriti O Waitangi) promising a formalised and cooperative partnership between the British Crown and the indigenous people of Aotearoa. 

Human exploitation of the regional resources began with Maori who hunted moa, and harvested flax, and eels from the area that is now Blenheim. Further south, kumara gardens were planted along the coast. European activities began with sealing and whaling, but later logging, gold mining, and pastoral farming became important local industries as the region developed. In the early 20th Century, Marlborough had the largest area of land in NZ devoted to lucerne production. Pastoral farming has remained a mainstay of the economy up until recently when viticulture has begun to dominate land use, and marine farming has also become an inportant part of the economy.

Today Marlborough is one of the southern hemisphere's most important wine growing regions, however traditional pastoral farming still continues in parts of the region, albeit on a much reduced scale. With the wine industry, an increasing focus on tourism has also developed, and the natural beauty of the Marlborough Sounds provides an ideal environment for eco-tourism, along with other parts of the region.

The regional population density is low, and population is concentrated in a few towns. At the 2013 census the usually resident population of Marlborough District  was 43,416, in  2006, 42,549 and 39,555 in 2001. By far the largest proportion of the population live in Blenheim, with a population of 24,083 (2013).  Other towns towns are Picton, Havelock, Seddon, Ward, Rai Valley, Renwick, Wairau Valley and Kaikoura (not officially part of the Marlborough District under current boundaries, but historically part of  Marlborough.) The permanent population is expanded considerably by seasonal workers employed in the region's vineyards.

Unemployment is considerably lower than the national average 2.8% vs 4.5%) , however incomes also tend to be lower, ($27,900 vs $28,500 median personal income).*
Work tends to be focused around primary production with viticulture and forestry providing a great deal of employment.

* Source: Department of Statistics 2013 Census data.

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