This South Island city of some 306,000 people has a well-trained and knowledgeable cadre of "ambassadors." They enjoy greeting and making tourists feel welcome in their country.

They operate tram cars, drive taxis, work in restaurants and take visitors on leisurely punting (boat) trips along beautiful flower- and ivy-laden banks of the Avon River in Christchurch, often described as the most English city outside of England."We have 3.5 million people and 42 million sheep in New Zealand," said Marie Hazeledine-Barber, who has been operating a tram for about a year in Christchurch.

Without knowing the length of the operator's stint at her current job, one might assume that Hazeledine-Barber, a friendly woman who joked about her "typical English double-banger" name, had lived and worked in Christchurch for many years. She spoke with ease and confidence about the city, which was founded about 150 years ago by Church of England settlers.

Hopping aboard tram No. 11 - known as the "The Little Chocolate Box" or "Philadelphia Tram" - when Hazeledine-Barber is at the controls, visitors can expect a friendly greeting and informative commentary. She speaks without hesitation as the tram rolls along rails through the heart of the city.

Christchurch is one of the few cities in the world with public trams. They are electrically operated and have a hand break. The No. 11 tram operated by Hazeledine-Barber was once located in Philadelphia. It was brought to New Zealand at the turn of the century and transported tourists for 49 years in Dunedin before being moved to Christchurch.

Dunedin, a city whose Gaelic name means Edinburgh, is also located on the east coast and near the tip of New Zealand's South Island.

The Little Chocolate Box and other trams pass many of the historic and other sites in Christchurch, including Canterbury Museum, Christ's College, Cranmer Square, Victoria Square, the Arts Center and Cathedral Square.

Christchurch was founded by the Canterbury Association, formed in 1848 largely through the efforts of John Robert Godley. The organization planned to establish a model Church of England settlement. The original immigrants arrived on five ships in 1850-51. Their settlement, known as Canterbury, was renamed for Christ Church college (at Oxford University) in Oxford, England, which Godley had attended, according to The New Encyclopedia Britannica.

There's generally a story behind each of the old churches and cathedrals, government buildings, statues and other historic markers. And Hazeledine-Barber seems to know much of the history of the area.

The Arts Center of Christchurch was home to the University of Canterbury until 1975. In that year the last departments of the university were moved out and an arts center trust was formed to take over the entire complex. It now includes two cinemas, two theaters, two restaurants, cafes, studios, workshops and galleries.

The Visitors Information Center, a charming red brick building of Queen Anne design, was the City Council's home from 1887 to 1924. In Victoria Square, named after England's Queen Victoria in celebration of her diamond jubilee as monarch in 1896, statues were erected in her honor and that of Captain James Cook, English naval officer and explorer who explored Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica.

At one time the square, a beautifully designed open space, was the commercial heart of Christchurch and was known as Market Square. It was the site of markets, a women's prison, a dog pound and immigration barracks.

"You could go there, visit your wife in jail, register the dog, buy your vegetables and think of immigrating as a one-stop shop," Hazeledine-Barber said with a smile.

Victoria Square also features the oldest of the city's iron bridges and a stone ramp leading down to the river where horses were watered. In 1949, when circuses came to town, the animal keepers used to bring the elephants down to the Avon River so they could have a bath and a drink, the tram operator recalled.

A Gothic building with a distinctive tower and porch has been the home of the Canterbury Museum since 1877. Located a short distance from the Arts Center, the museum has world-class displays of geology, zoology, Maori, Asian and European collections. The museum's newest gallery, Nga Taonga Tuku Iho o Nga Tupuna (which means "treasures handed down by the ancestors"), features artifacts of the classic Maori period.

Hazeledine-Barber is not only well acquainted with the history of Christchurch, she also seems to love getting acquainted with people who ride on or stop to look at the tram.

She was as friendly and accommodating to Japanese tourists stopping to check over the tram as she was with a retired Florida journalist who boarded the tramway along with other visitors.

"Konichiwa (which means `hello')," she said, courteously tipping her hat to a young Japanese woman who didn't get on the tram but who apparently just wanted to take a peek while still standing beside the tram on the street. The woman waved and said goodbye as the tram began moving down the street.

"Quite often the tourists, especially the Asian tourists, love to have their photograph taken. It's very important when their mother or father is with them. A lot of them get married over here. It's very important for them to have their photograph taken with the tram. It doesn't matter - even if they don't ride the tram. If some of them want a photograph, I don't mind their standing there for a minute to take a pickie," Hazeledine-Barber said.

The same spirit of friendliness and helpfulness that accompanies tram operators and taxi drivers seems also to be prevalent among waiters in restaurants and others in the service industries and tourism business in New Zealand.

My wife, Joan, and I observed that spirit in Simon Young, a friendly and attentive waiter at T.G.I. Friday's Restaurant in Christchurch; in Chris, a boatman who provided the power for our flat-bottomed, 22-foot-long Chinese mahogany craft for punting on the Avon River; and in those welcoming visitors and staffing exhibits at the Antarctic Center. The center is located near the Christchurch Airport.

Winner of the New Zealand Tourism Awards "best visitor attraction," the center is designed to give a firsthand experience of the "Great White Continent," located only about eight hours' flying time from Christchurch. The center features a large multiscreen audiovisual program, experimental exhibits, live displays and Antarctic play areas all designed to make visitors feel like they've actually been in the Antarctic.

In the "Snow and Ice Experience," a room filled with 40 tons of real snow and ice, visitors can build snowmen, explore a snow cave and even slide downhill in a freezing sub-zero environment.

Whether tourists are at the Antarctic Center, stopping at a museum or cathedral, riding a taxi or relaxing at a hotel, they seem to get the same kind of first-class treatment, according to LaMar B. Williams of Salt Lake City. He is the North American director of sales and marketing for Christchurch Convention Center. Years ago, Williams booked conventions at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.

He describes New Zealand as an "environmentally safe and untouched land with hundreds of pristine, glacially fed rivers to welcome visitors. But the most significant quality that the country provides is the friendly and hospitable people who call New Zealand home. No task is too difficult for them when accommodating a visitor to their country.

"Whether it's a trip to the Alps of the South Island or the fishing harbors of the North Island, one can easily get lost in the atmosphere and beauty of this great country," he added.



For information

Contact the New Zealand Tourism Board, 501 Santa Monica Blvd., No. 300 Santa Monica, CA 90401, telephone 1-800-388-5494; or LaMar B. Williams, North American director of sales and marketing for Christchurch Convention Center, 1-800-869-9353.