WELLINGTON • New Zealand passports are not for sale, Prime Minister Bill English said yesterday, after it emerged that US tech titan Peter Thiel gained citizenship despite not meeting official criteria.
The dispute over Mr Thiel's citizenship follows reports that wealthy Americans are eyeing the South Pacific nation as a "bolthole" should United States leader Donald Trump's presidency go wrong.
The New Zealand government confirmed this week that Mr Thiel, a German-born billionaire, was granted citizenship in June 2011, just two months after donating NZ$1 million (S$1.03 million) to an official Christchurch earthquake disaster fund.
Mr English acknowledged that Mr Thiel did not meet the usual requirements - living at least 70 per cent of the previous five years in New Zealand - but said he was granted citizenship due to exceptional circumstances.
"New Zealand is a better place with Mr Thiel as a citizen," Mr English told reporters. He declined to detail the exceptional circumstances and dismissed as "ridiculous" suggestions that New Zealand had sold citizenship to Mr Thiel, who Forbes estimates is worth US$2.7 billion (S$3.8 billion).
The opposition Labour Party's immigration spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway said the case raised questions about whether the rich were receiving special treatment. "I don't think that fits very well with New Zealand's egalitarian values," he said.
Mr Thiel, who has reportedly retained his US citizenship, co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook. He bucked the trend in Silicon Valley by supporting Mr Trump and is part of the US President's transition team.
The New York Times said that after Mr Thiel strongly supported Mr Trump's "America first" rhetoric, adopting a "backup country" appeared a typically contrarian move by the tech investor.
"Perhaps Mr Thiel's interest in New Zealand is indeed a way of hedging his bets on a biological catastrophe or an economic meltdown," it said.
The New Yorker magazine this week reported that many wealthy Americans were taking a similar view. It cited a recent conversation between tech investor Justin Kan and an unnamed hedge fund manager who advised him to buy land in New Zealand.
Immigration officials reported a spike in inquiries about moving to New Zealand after Mr Trump's election and Britain's vote to leave the European Union.
Mr English said New Zealand's strong economy and political stability made the country attractive in an uncertain global climate.
"Around the world now, there's quite a lot of anxiety because there's so much uncertainty, whether it's in Europe or the UK or the US," he said. "So I'd expect there would be demand for people to come to New Zealand. That's a measure of success."