Conferencing in Dunedin: Beyond religion

30 Apr 2017 10:09 PM | Deleted user

Danish Professor Tim Jensen eulogises about Dunedin and why the city is the chosen host for a major international congress for religion scholars

Some 600 of the world’s leading scholars in the scientific study of religion are set to converge on Dunedin in September 2020. It’s a little-known - perhaps surprising - fact that the popular student town is host to several religion scholars ranking amongst the top of their field; a leading reason why it was chosen unanimously to host the 22nd Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR).

The IAHR currently comprises some 50 national and regional member associations and is the preeminent international forum for the critical, analytical and cross-cultural study of religion, past and present. Its 2020 congress will be held at the University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university and the first in the Asia Pacific region to have a formal programme in the study of religion. It will also coincide with the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religion's 50th anniversary.

Tim Jensen, Associate Professor of The Study of Religions at the University of Southern Denmark, and President of the IAHR, says: “The bid simply was convincing as regards the quality of the hosting national association, of the local scholars who were to constitute the local organising committee, the support of the university, of the city of Dunedin and Tourism New Zealand.

“Dunedin may be a fairly small city, but it has all the facilities needed for our world congress in terms of the university venue, transportation, hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. Moreover, in and around Dunedin the visitor has plentiful marvellous nature close at hand. The scenery at the Peninsula is stunning, and I can recommend a train trip along the coast as well as into the mountains. I know of some surfers amongst the scholars of the IAHR: they will be hard to drag away from the wonderful surf of Dunedin.”

Jensen admits he was converted by New Zealand’s legendary hospitality, while his initial impressions of its scenery are nothing short of rapturous: “Kiwis are extraordinarily friendly, extraordinarily kind to visitors. Something I thought was mostly exaggerations - until I visited myself.

“And then, on top of this you have the simply incredible, fabulous, fairy-tale like landscape. Visitors from time to time have to ask themselves if they are wide awake or dreaming, standing in a real landscape, or in a virtual reality fairy-tale; there’s such incredible diversity, incredible power of colours.”

Jensen also notes New Zealand’s reputation for tolerance sets it apart as a conference destination. In a world where international associations - which exist predominantly as vehicles for knowledge-sharing, research and best practice - are finding it more difficult to obtain business events visas for international delegations than previous years, New Zealand’s welcoming attitude towards visa policy, scientific study and divergent viewpoints are definite plus points. “New Zealand must be said to have a relatively good record as a place of religious toleration and diversity,” Jensen adds. “Kiwis are, I think not without some good reason, proud to think of themselves as progressive. That also matters.

“Contrary to what some people might think, this kind of academic, non-confessional scientific study of religion is still in need of strong support. Folk or common notions of religion and outright lack of knowledge of specific religions, not to speak of stereotypes and prejudices, dominate, and I think they do so with not so good consequences for states, societies, and individuals and their ability to handle religious and cultural diversity.”

For his part, local champion of the bid Will Sweetman, Associate Professor at the University of Otago’s Religion Programme, agrees the congress is a ‘wonderful opportunity’ to bring outstanding scholars of religion from all over the world to New Zealand, as well as to showcase the work of staff and students in Religious Studies programmes in New Zealand. “We hope it will also create a lasting legacy for the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions."

Additionally, the IAHR will also deliver more worldly benefits to the city of Dunedin. The five-day conference will translate to up to 3,000 room nights in the off-peak season, with its visitors injecting an estimated $1 million into the local economy.

The conference win is another successful collaboration between the University of Otago, Enterprise Dunedin, and Tourism New Zealand, which work together to attract business events for both the tangible tourism dollars and the international prestige they bring.

Enterprise Dunedin's Business Events Tourism Advisor Bree Jones says: “Promoting Dunedin and New Zealand as a knowledge centre continues to pay dividends, as it gives us a unique proposition globally. These conferences deliver vital economic benefits to our city and surrounding regions as they bring high-yield delegates during our off-peak season."

Sweetman notes the bid was dependent on the support of both Enterprise Dunedin, and Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme, which offers strategic funding and marketing assistance for bids for events with more than 200 international delegates. "We would not have won this bid without it. The staff were fantastic, and helped us to produce a professional and convincing bid document.”

Lisa Gardiner, International Business Events and Premium Manager, Tourism New Zealand adds: "This is a fantastic result for Dunedin and wider New Zealand. Visitors to events like this often spend additional time in the area and travelling further afield and this benefits all New Zealanders. Hosting events gives us the opportunity to showcase our world-class offering and that encourages more and more international groups to consider New Zealand as an events destination. Tourism New Zealand works with a number of agencies and offers a range of support to assist them to bring conferences like this to New Zealand."

Jensen admits the biggest challenges that organisations like the IAHR face in choosing New Zealand as a conference destination relate to the costs, and the long journey for some participants, of travelling to New Zealand, and says funding and support are of the utmost importance to conference organisers.

“I was grateful for the financial support offered to reimburse the major part of my costs related to my site visit. I was equally grateful for the help and assistance offered by the local host and for the kindness shown by the local Dunedin tourism agency. I cannot wait to work with them further to deliver the 2020 Congress.”

If you would like to find out more about Tourism New Zealand, please visit

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